It started with an email from an industry friend, 18 hours before the fact, warning of an impending European travel alert.
"Can have big implications," he wrote.
The next day, on the heels of the official announcement that U.S. citizens living or traveling in Europe should take precautions regarding security (and specifically warning about "the potential for terrorists to attack public transportation systems and other tourist infrastructure"), I received a note from a travel agent I know. The subject line of his email: "This is going to be a total mess. Believe me."
The vagueness of the warning -- "Europe" was the area covered by the alert, though later reports cited France, Germany and the U.K. as the most likely targets -- seemed ominous for the industry. Skittish as Americans have been in the past, the whole continent appeared likely to suffer from a drop in tourism.
The next night I attended a small cocktail party for members of the World Travel and Tourism Council. I asked the organization's CEO, Jean-Claude Baumgarten, if he was concerned about the alert. Baumgarten, a Frenchman, answered with the English word for merde.
"We live in a dangerous world," he said, adding that the announcement "will have unintended effects. It was inappropriate. People simplify things. But if you don't go to London, Milan, Paris or Rome, you will give al-Qaida exactly what they want."
"But what if [President Obama is] right?" asked PhoCusWright CEO Philip Wolf, who was standing next to Baumgarten. "This is a classic risk/reward situation. What if he didn't say anything and Americans got hurt? If it came out that he knew but didn't give a warning?"
Wolf observed: "It's easy to say he shouldn't have [issued the alert], but the overriding factor is to warn Americans. Terrorism backs honest people into corners, and whatever you do in a situation like this, it's a different version of bad."
Carlson CEO Hubert Joly, also in the room, said it would be hard to predict the effect of the warning on leisure travel, but he doubted it would affect business travel. "If you have to go, you have to go," he said.
David Scowsill, who will replace Baumgarten as the WTTC's CEO on Nov. 15, noted that the alert did not say, "Don't travel."
"The threat is permanent," he said.
By Oct. 5, all reports I had read suggested that travel had not been seriously affected. I saw Geoffrey Kent, chairman of Abercrombie & Kent, that afternoon, and he said his tour operation business had not slowed at all.
"Some travel agents called yesterday with some very sensible questions," Kent said. "I think that by now, everybody's become semi-immune. [The threat of terrorism] is never going to go away. In fact, growing up in Kenya, I'm very aware that it's been like this forever."
By Oct. 6, I was getting reports that, far from slowing down, business was booming. Grand Circle/Overseas Adventure Travel sent me a note saying that last week was the best in the company's 52-year history, with $5 million in sales. I wrote back asking what affect the alert had had, coming just after this record week. The reply: "A handful of calls on Monday, but no slowdown at all."
I don't believe a tour operator has ever given me anything but cheerful news for the record -- unless, that is, it was to announce he was going out of business. But there are a few operators who will give me a realistic picture in an off-the-record conversation. I emailed one who has a large Europe book of business and who has always been candid with me (though never for publication) and asked if his business had been affected by the alert.
"We had one cancellation so far, that's all," he replied.
Well, that's one more than anyone else I spoke with was willing to admit to, so I suspect he's telling the truth, and I have come to the conclusion that either A) vague warnings are the way to go or B) Americans are becoming, as Kent suggested, "semi-immune."
Perhaps both A and B. As Scowsill and Kent said, terrorism is a permanent fixture in our world. Maybe Americans are slowly coming to accept that. Perhaps we're growing up.
Tom Jenkins, executive director of the European Tour Operators Association, believes that threats should be put in perspective. "It would be far more responsible for those in authority to issue their assessment of comparative risk," he said. "How much more dangerous is visiting the Louvre than crossing the street?"
I'm not sure governments are going to be giving out comparative statistics regarding our vulnerability. To urge people to continue to travel to Europe, would a U.S. official point out that, for example, America's murder rate is higher than in any Western European country? We're No. 24 in the world, well ahead of France (40), the U.K. (46) and Germany (49), the three countries al-Qaida apparently targeted.
"Terrorists do not damage an economy by what they do but by the reaction to what they do," Jenkins said, echoing Baumgarten's earlier statement that if you don't travel, you will give al-Qaida exactly what it wants.
This, I believe, is the message that might finally resonate with Americans: To change travel plans in response to threats is to hand a victory to terrorists.
Email Arnie Weissmann at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter.