he phenomenon of the "ugly American" -- when U.S. citizens abroad are regarded by host residents with disdain simply because they are American -- swells and ebbs with shifts in our government's foreign policy as much as with the behavior of citizens traveling overseas.

For 12 days, starting on the day of the release of the photos showing abuse of Iraqi prisoners, I was traveling in Europe and the Persian Gulf states. Regarding America's image abroad, President Bush acknowledged that the abuse has "caused harm that goes well beyond the walls of the prison," and I can testify that anti-American sentiment is running very high. I first traveled internationally during the Nixon administration, and I cannot remember ever listening to such widespread negative bias against our country.

A friend of mine in London -- a steadfast supporter of President Bush and the invasion of Iraq -- estimated anti-American sentiment in Europe running at 85%. An Italian friend, also a vocal supporter of the president and the war, thought that estimate was low.

In Qatar, almost everyone I spoke with agreed that Saddam was an evil the world is well rid of, but that didn't temper their anger with America. Some would say they were only angry with the administration and not with everyday Americans, but there was a near-universal perception that all Americans are guided by a profound ignorance of Arab sensibilities.

This belief led two wealthy, U.S.-educated Qataris I spoke with to state that they now have no interest in visiting the U.S., as they did regularly before 9/11. One of them first noted the increased red tape in obtaining a visa, then said he felt he would be unsafe in America.

When I expressed doubt that he would be in physical danger simply because he was an Arab, it turned out that what he really felt was that he would be greeted within America as the foreign equivalent of an "ugly American." He felt unwelcome in the U.S., and beyond that, he felt his dignity would be at risk on U.S. soil, almost certainly at airports, but possibly elsewhere as well.

The bottom line for them, the other said, was that "there are plenty of other places we can spend our money where we'll be welcomed."

This isn't a surprising reaction from a traveler who feels "ugly" in a destination, and I worry that this logic may affect the outbound recovery the industry is experiencing as U.S. travelers prepare to head back to Europe this summer.

Travelers who are not within the cocoon of an escorted, packaged tour will, at the least, encounter a host or two expressing displeasure with U.S. policy, and may well encounter overt anti-American prejudice. If these experiences are shared with friends, it may become assumed, as it is in the Arab world, that unpleasant encounters become integral to a trip to certain destinations.

If that, in turn, leads Americans to the same conclusions the Qataris expressed -- "there are plenty of other places we can spend our money where we'll be welcomed" -- it could have a significant effect on the industry recovery. Especially if it turns out that there are not plenty of other places where Americans will be welcomed.


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