The impact of terrorism on tourism. Why do Europe and America see it so differently?

With pansies blooming at the base of a palm tree, and a limestone fountain bubbling beside a tree laden with oranges, it's hard to remember that Israel considers itself at war with its neighbors. But step inside from the courtyard of this 146-year-old Arabian palace that is now the American Colony Hotel and the desk clerk will tell you that, yes, indeed, there are rooms still available.

That's unusual, given that the Easter/Passover season is hard upon us. Jerusalem, a holy city for three of the world's great religions, is usually well booked with pilgrims and tourists by now.

Why the vacancies? Very simple: fear of terrorism.

In the past year, in fact, the impact of terrorism on tourism has become a major issue. The problem is not confined to Israel: US State Department officials estimate that during 1985 the countries around the Mediterranean collectively lost $1 billion in tourist spending. Israel, however, provides a good case study.

During each of the first seven months of 1985, according to Ministry of Tourism figures, the volume of overseas visitors to Israel grew by 20 to 30 percent. But June brought the hijacking of TWA Flight 847 -- followed by the Achille Lauro seajacking in October, the Egyptair hijacking in November, and the shootings at the Rome and Vienna airports in December. For the last five months of 1985, international tourism here grew by a much more modest 5 to 8 percent.

The fact remains, however, that it did grow. Why? Largely because a substantial number of last year's 1.4 billion visitors came from Europe. Compared with 1984, the number of European visitors increased by 20 percent in 1985. The real cutbacks came, it appears, in bookings from America.

And there, it seems, lies one of the apparent paradoxes in the worldwide efforts to subdue terrorism: that the nation which has remained almost entirely free of domestic terrorist incidents should be among the most skittish about terrorism. Two things help explain this anomaly. First, American citizens and institutions abroad have been the target of nearly one-third of all terrorist attacks in the 1980s. Second, Americans get most of their news from the US television networks -- the medium of choice for many terrorists and one which has a reputation, especially among Europeans, for rather tasteless sensationalism.

Combine this diet of hype with a very real concern about Yankees as targets, and you get some clear distinctions between American and European attitudes toward terrorism. Earlier this month, a poll conducted for the New York Times found that only about 1 in 10 people in France, West Germany, and Britain would urge a friend not to travel abroad because of terrorism. Among Americans, according to a New York Times-CBS poll in January, the figure was 57 percent.

Does that mean that Europe, which has lived with terrorism longer than the United States, is more callous? Or that America is more prudent? Or that the Israelis, campaigning hard to attract more tourists to their admittedly breathtaking destinations, are wishing away the problem in their urge to maintain a source of income that contributes more than 10 percent of their gross national product?

In each case, the answer is no. The problem, to be sure, must not be overlooked. Europe and Israel are already taking giant and expensive steps to counter terrorism aimed at tourists: Boarding a plane in Frankfurt for Tel Aviv last week, for instance, I counted 11 soldiers with automatic weapons guarding my path, 15 people involved in searching my luggage, and one armored personnel carrier waiting on the tarmac beside the plane.

But neither must the problem be overblown. To do so is to play directly into the hands of the terrorists -- tiny bands of criminals who succeed in exact proportion to their ability to amplify the theatrics of fear across a worldwide stage.

Americans, at this juncture, have a choice. They can allow themselves to be titillated by tales of terror -- bringing to evening newscasts the same fascination they are asked to lavish on the fictional violence that characterizes much of the rest of America's TV fare. They can, in other words, acquiesce to the terrorist's demands -- recoiling in horror, changing their travel plans, and growing more defensive and isolationist.

Or they can resist terrorism where it most needs resisting: in thought. They can recognize how terrorism tries to manipulate the emotions. They can muster their courage, patience, and determination to avoid all indulgence in violence, whether imagined or real. In that way, they can keep the problem in perspective, keep themselves informed but not sensationalized, andkeep working to defeat the reign of fear with the rule of law. A Monday column

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