Going to Paris? Don't forget toothbrush, camera ... and a visa. Terrorism is down, but France plays it safe by extending visa rule
``It was rare dumbness,'' says Stephen Belless as he describes his last trip to Paris. Mr. Belless, an American TV producer based in K"oln, West Germany, arrived recently at Charles de Gaulle Airport for a business weekend, but neglected to come armed with a visa. French border police sent him right back.
``If you're used to jumping on a plane and running all over Europe, as I've been doing for years,'' says Belless, ``you just don't stop to think France now has visa regulations.''
Belless, apparently, isn't alone. Quite a few Americans have not gotten the message that they, as well as nationals from about 40 other countries, still need visas to travel here, ever since the French government imposed the requirement last September as an antiterrorism measure.
The decision followed a series of bombings in Paris that killed 11 people and wounded more than 160 others.
The attacks have stopped and French police have claimed several successes lately in their fight against terrorism.
But the measure, imposed at first for six months, has been extended indefinitely.
With the peak tourist season just weeks away, some American officials are worried they could be besieged with calls for help.
``We cannot go to the French and fuss too hard about their visa [requirements],'' says Marvin Groeneweg, head of the Office of American Services at the United States Embassy in Paris. Especially, Mr. Groeneweg points out, since the US requires one from French visitors.
The Embassy gets about four or five calls a week from American tourists blocked at airports and other border points. ``Certainly with more travelers,'' Groeneweg says, ``the incidents are likely to increase.''
Jean-Paul Lespinasse, a spokesman for the Ministry of Tourism, says the number of Americans coming to France without visas is ``extraordinarily slim.'' He says he is convinced France has publicized its visa policy widely and suggests if Americans do get stranded it is their own fault.
But Groeneweg says, ``The primary culprits in this - or certainly an element that must share the responsibility - and aren't doing it are the airlines who permit people to get on planes without visas.''
French officials admit that initially there was chaos. But now they say the confusion and long lines at French consulates have been eliminated with visas processed within a few days.
A spokesman for the Foreign Affairs Ministry says that 600 supplementary staff have been hired worldwide to handle applications and special funds have been appropriated to computerize more French consulates.
A three-year multiple entry visa costs $15. Border police are supposed to advise travelers arriving without visas to go to an adjacent country to apply at a French consulate there. Groeneweg says emergency visits are handled by US and French officials with little difficulty.
French officials maintain that the visa requirement has been successful in discouraging terrorism, coupled with other measures including increased police patrols, greater cooperation among international intelligence services, and French counterespionage work.
But some travel professionals, hoping for a busier summer than last year's, worry the requirement is hurting business.
``It's not going down, it is down,'' says Andr'e Saurin, head of an association of restaurant and hotel operators.
Mr. Saurin's group, the Chambre Nationale de la Restauration et de l'Hotellerie, is trying to persuade the government to issue visas more quickly and free of charge.
``Psychologically, the visa requirement isn't well accepted by tourists,'' says Fran,cois Fillatre, a spokesman for the Paris-based travel company France Tourisme. ``It's like being put in the same bag with terrorists.''
Fears of terrorist attacks, coupled with the steep drop in the value of the dollar, last year discouraged many Americans from visiting France.
According to government statistics and travel professionals, tourism last year was down 20 percent over 1985, when a record 2.8 million Americans traveled here.
French tourism officials state that if Americans aren't returning this year in greater numbers it is not because of visas but because of the dollar's continued decline.
Suzanne Beauvallet, an American tourist from Honolulu, says she got her visa by mail from the French consulate in San Francisco without any hardship in 10 days.
``I understand the situation,'' she says, ``and with terrorism it's a good idea to know who is coming in and going out.''
Ms. Beauvallet, however, never had to show her stamped passport.
When she and her husband crossed the border into France by car, border police never checked them.
French officials admit that people who come into the country are more regularly - and more rigorously - checked when they arrive by plane.
As for television producer Belless, still embarrassed by what he calls the most expensive tour of his life, he says he has decided to cross France off his travel list.