For summer travel, no fear factor
From Old Faithful to Duck Tours in Boston, Americans visit popular haunts, despite recent terror alerts.
WASHINGTON — In Boston the Duck Tours are jammed. Terror warnings? Tourists lined up for the amphibious bus excursions say they take them seriously, but they're not hiding at home. Terrorists "can't scare me out of traveling," says Atlantan Michael Agurkis, boarding an ungainly tour vehicle.
San Diego's zoo is as popular as ever. Resident Debra Spencer isn't thinking about suspicious parcels as she wheels her toddler around the famous naturalistic animal exhibits. "I can't live my life that way," she says.
In Chicago the skydeck of the Sears Tower is open for business. This is so even though some officials see the nation's tallest building as a possible target of attack. Asked whether he would change travel plans if the FBI puts out another alert, Larry Maglicco, visiting from Phoenix, says "not really."
As the nation enters its first summer of the "new normal," Americans are moving again, if warily. Outside New York and Washington, the recent spate of dire warnings about coming attacks seems distant and appears to have had little effect on travel plans.
The mood of ordinary Americans seems a mix of acceptance and defiance. More terrorism could change things overnight. But there is little wallowing in fear. Polls and anecdotal evidence point instead to a strong national recovery of emotion
"The level of anxiety is clearly down," says Karlyn Bowman, a public opinion expert at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington.
In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, for instance, nine in 10 Americans reported some sort of personal reaction to the terrorist attacks on the nation, such as feeling numb or having difficulty sleeping.
By February, that had dropped to five in 10, according to recently released data from the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago. Last fall 70 percent of respondents reported crying over the attacks, according to a Gallup/CNN survey. By this March the figure had dropped to 21 percent.
Only about 25 percent of respondents to a recent ABC News/Washington Post survey said the events of Sept. 11 changed they way they lived.
Of course, that a quarter of Americans say their lives are different is still significant. And the overall numbers hide a number of geographical disparities. Not surprisingly, residents of Washington and New York are much more likely to say they're worried about possible attacks to come. "People are much more sensitive to government warnings in the bigger cities," says Ms. Bowman.
But until now, worries that a frightened America would hunker in backyards this summer rather than venture out in the great annual social migration appear off the mark.
Boston's Duck Tour business hasn't suffered from the recent terrorist warnings, for instance. Though things dropped last fall, since then the amphibious buses have been busier than normal. Sales representative Brian McGillivray's theory is that they have benefited from the one lasting effect of Sept. 11 on most Americans a reluctance to fly. "A lot of local people are staying local," says Mr. McGillivray. "School groups that might have gone to D.C. or New York are staying here, so we have a lot of kids from New Hampshire and Maine."
Indeed, Duck buses are packed with kids at all stages of adolescence, quacking loudly for amusement.
Nor is it hard to find tourists who drive to Boston and who aren't shying away from public spaces elsewhere in the city.
Philadelphians Shane Famille and Amy Bratelli were wandering through the Boston Public Garden on a recent sun-dappled afternoon. They had no hesitation about their six hour drive up from the city of brotherly cheese steaks, though Mr. Famille admits that driving over New York City's George Washington Bridge did give him pause.
Still, for the most part, Famille has "no anxiety at all," he says, and remains unfazed by the vagueness of recent government terror warnings. "I'm glad they're being honest, actually about [how little they know]."
To a certain extent, the warnings of Vice President Dick Cheney and other officials that more attacks are inevitable didn't cause a stir in much of the nation because state and local law-enforcement groups are already on high alert.
At Chicago's Sears Tower skydeck, security has been tighter since last fall. Visitors today are subject to metal detectors and X-ray machines.
"There's high sensitivity and awareness in the general public," says Carlos Villarreal, director of security for the tower.
This doesn't mean things remain as tight throughout the Chicago area as they were last fall, though. In the immediate aftermath of Sept. 11, security officers at some 30 local cultural institutes formed an ad hoc group to coordinate safety efforts. It offered advice on how to add surveillance cameras and otherwise tighten up without busting budgets.
Early this year, all the museums decided to stop inspecting patrons' bags. That labor-intensive job was expensive and didn't seem to provide much benefit. Nor were the inspections reinstituted during any of the recent warnings.
"If they go to the highest level of alert, or if there's something specific for cultural institutions or here in Chicago, we will probably go back to searching parcels," says Jeffrey Hawkins, senior manager of protection services at the Field Museum.
There is also a paradox this summer: Some tourist sites are bracing for a possible surge in visitors due to the emotions stirred by the nation's war on terrorism. Prime among these are national parks, which are both key driving destinations and a symbol of the fabric of the nation.
"We're expecting higher visitation because we did see some spikes in visitation after 9/11, with people seeking out parks close to home, particularly the historic sites that are icons of patriotic inspiration," says Elaine Sevy, a spokeswoman at Park Service headquarters in Washington.
In the wide open West, the surge may have already begun. At Yellowstone National Park, for instance, visitors again are thronging to the boardwalks to watch Old Faithful erupt, though officials here admit that the challenge of implementing antiterrorism measures is almost unfathomable.
Yellowstone stretches across 2.2 million acres, an area bigger than some New England states. For the first time in the 130-year history of park, the 3,500 concession employees attending orientation sessions are not only receiving instruction in how to provide service for guests and ways of avoiding encounters with bears and bison; they're being told to be on the lookout for "suspicious activity."
"We're looking to the public to help us by reporting anything that doesn't look right," says Yellowstone spokeswoman Marsha Karle.
In addition to those extra eyes and ears, Ms. Karle says that Yellowstone has employed electronic surveillance devices to monitor larger visitor staging areas.
According to Karle, who often talks with visitors, the mood seems to have changed little from years past. "National parks have a special place in the psyche of this nation," adds Ms. Sevy. "They make sense as refuges in a world that doesn't always make sense. Nature can have a healing effect."
Reported by staff writer Christina McCarroll in Boston and contributors Terry Costlow in Chicago, Eilene Zimmerman in San Diego, and Todd Wilkinson in Bozeman, Mont.