he Belgians, the Germans and the French -- along with suppliers from throughout Europe and beyond -- established a beachhead on Manhattan island last week. A consumer trade show held by a confederation called the Luxury Alliance took over a posh Midtown venue to pour champagne, share sushi, display high fashion and offer brochures touting high-end properties, cruises and tours that target the wealthy.

More than a few of the Europeans seemed to be treading American soil a bit nervously. After an attendee questioned a Belgian hotelier about his country's sense of gratitude to the U.S., he told me that he had "wondered how he would be received," given that Belgium joined France and Germany in an inter-NATO dispute with the U.S. earlier this month.

"The woman asked, 'Do you still like America?' I told her, 'We never stopped liking America,' " said Yannick Busaan, assistant director of sales in Europe for Warwick International Hotels.

The French, German and Belgian suppliers I spoke with seemed both bewildered and pained to see that, on top of a weak global economy and war-time jitters, there appears to be a cultural rift further threatening transatlantic tourism.

They can't understand how the language of their leaders is heard in the U.S. as being anti-American, just as some Americans can't understand why some European leaders won't readily accept the arguments advanced by U.S. officials.

Words, apparently, are part of the problem. Olivier Tornbeur, sales manager for the Conrad in Brussels, blames the media, in part, for tension among NATO allies. "I listened with one ear to [French Prime Minister] Jacques Chirac, and with the other to CNN's translation. Chirac stated clearly that he and the U.S. have the same goal -- to remove Saddam Hussein. That was never reported -- they only translated the points of disagreement.

"Would Belgium refuse to help a NATO ally in a war? No one can imagine us saying no -- it can't happen. But that's not the impression Americans walked away with."

Fabrice Mercier, general manager of the Chateau de Mirambeau in Mirambeau, France, also is worried about his business. He sees anti-French sentiment in the U.S. and is saddened that disagreements between the governments might lead Americans to conclude that France is anti-American. "They say the French people have forgotten World War II, but we will never forget. Never.

"In France, we don't know if Bush is right or Chirac is right. We only say we need the time to think about it."

Another French hotelier, Phillippe Gombert, said he was shocked to see French demonstrators waving a U.S. flag on which the stars had been replaced by a swastika, and is concerned such images could lead to a boycott of France as a destination. "We are all democratic countries. We are friends. We are allies," he said. He believes discussion of the important issues among allies is not an inherently anti-U.S. position, and isn't sure why it's interpreted that way in America.

Regine Sparber, director of the Hotel Burg Wernberg in Wernberg-Koblitz, Germany, expressed concern with the shift in U.S.-German relations. "When [U.S. Secretary of Defense] Donald Rumsfeld says, 'Watch out, Germany isn't a safe destination,' it's a shame. Both sides have been so undiplomatic.

"The World Wars were not so long ago, and they are remembered in Germany. We have been through so much because of them. It's not that we don't want to support the U.S., but it should be understandable why we would want to first try nonmilitary options. That doesn't make us anti-American."

From the time of the building of the Tower of Babel, nations have had a difficult time understanding one another, even in pursuit of a common goal. Tourism has been a positive force on behalf of cross-cultural understanding, and it's ironic that it may be the first casualty of pre-war positioning. The "undiplomatic" tone from once-allied leaders may represent a longer-term threat to transatlantic tourism than the conflict itself.


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