Operators: 'M11' in Spain won't spell 9/11

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NEW YORK -- Despite the deadly havoc wrought by the terrorist bombings in Madrid earlier this month, March 11 -- or M11 as some in Europe now call it -- will be no 9/11 in terms of long-term negative impact on travel, said industry leaders here and abroad.

At the same time, others cautioned that a post-attack change of government in Spain could still sour political relations and stifle bookings from the U.S.

Operators specializing in Spain, such as Joaquin Pradas, director of Rego Park, N.Y.-based Petrabax Tours, reported few cancellations in the wake of the railway explosions -- now tentatively attributed to Islamic extremists -- and the subsequent election of a new Socialist government critical of U.S. policy in Iraq.

An "optimistic" Pradas, president of the Spain Tour Operators Association, said he expected bookings from today's "more realistic" U.S. travelers to fully recover once the bombings "come off the front pages."

Similarly, a poll of Carlson Wagonlit Travel agencies found that only 10% of those selling Spain got cancellations.

For its part, the Tourist Office of Spain received only a handful of telephone inquiries in the U.S., and those were chiefly condolence calls, said Julio Lopez, Chicago-based acting director for North America.

But some Madrid hoteliers, while agreeing that Europeans -- more accustomed to sporadic terrorist attacks -- wouldn't cancel bookings, weren't so sure about U.S. guests.

Carlo Suffredini, the resident manager at the Westin Palace Madrid -- located two blocks from where seven bombs went off -- said U.S. bookings, which had already slumped from 35% to 20%, would now account for no more than 15% this year.

"It's the American market, as normally the Europeans aren't afraid," he said. "But I don't see a quick recovery at all. "

Marc Rodriguez, executive assistant manager at the Ritz Hotel, was more pessimistic and predicted that all bookings to Spain would suffer. "I think people will be afraid to go to Barcelona and Seville, but hopefully they'll get over this faster than they did with New York."

Some stateside tour operators share Rodriguez's concerns -- but mainly because they worry about a U.S. consumer backlash due to Spain's new plans to withdraw its troops from Iraq.

Robin Tauck, president of Tauck World Discovery, said she's watching booking patterns closely, despite the fact the firm received only one cancellation following the attacks.

"We may see cancellations ... if Spain takes an anti-American stance on Iraq," she said. "It happened before with France ... [and] we lost bookings."

Others, such as Nikos Tsakanikas of Homeric Tours, disagreed; while Homeric did get some cancellations "hopefully this ... will pass," he said.

At ITB -- the massive travel trade show held in Berlin last week -- European operators and hoteliers, buoyed by strong summer bookings, didn't seem panicked, either.

"It's not like 9/11, which shut down air traffic on transatlantic routes," one tour operator said. "What killed business ... was travelers' worry that something might happen and they wouldn't be able to get home."

Meanwhile, the Tourist Office of Spain has put a new promotional campaign -- entitled "Spain Marks" -- on hold until May.

Arnie Weissmann and David Cogswell contributed to this report.

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