Trade mixed on tourism impact of Haider tie to Austria government

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NEW YORK -- The entry into Austria's governing coalition of Joerg Haider's Freedom Party, a right-wing, anti-immigration group led by a man who has made comments sympathetic to those who served the Third Reich, evoked concern among some sellers of travel to Austria.

Doris Clark, president of Smolka Tours in Tinton Falls, N.J., said, "The media fuss over Haider will affect travel to Austria because it has been proven by past travel patterns that people believe what they read in the newspaper, and even local papers are running articles about this."

The 15-country European Union took the unprecedented step of downgrading diplomatic ties with Austria, a union member, except on the technical level, based on the alliance of the Freedom Party with the People's Party, a center-right group, to form the two-party coalition that now runs Austria. This will not affect current travel arrangements among E.U. states.

The coalition was formed after fall elections as part of the standard Austrian parliamentary procedure that allows parties to unite when they lack sufficient voter support to form a government on their own.

The People's Party leaders were unable to form an alliance with its longtime traditional partner, the Social Democrats, a left-leaning party.

Haider, who is the head of the Freedom Party, remains governor of Austria's Carinthia region and will have no appointed role in the new government.

In announcing its position, the E.U. cited Haider's history of anti-immigration policy, made as Austria struggles to integrate a flood of immigrants from eastern Europe, as well as his statements praising Hitler's labor policies and Austrians who fought for Hitler. Haider later apologized for those remarks. The U.S., meanwhile, withdrew its ambassador from Austria for consultations.

Austria travel specialists in the U.S. reacted with dismay to the media publicity on Haider, but operators who sell a varied number of Europe tours were not alarmed.

"If the American government says it is going to cool its relationship with Austria, I am sure that at least two-thirds of the Americans who might have traveled there will reconsider their plans," said Smolka Tours' Clark, a Vienna native who specializes in trips to Europe's alpine regions.

Two large wholesalers of escorted tours to Europe had a different response: Maureen Van Metter, vice president of marketing for Trafalgar Tours here, and Nigel Osborne, president of Insight in Boston, said they did not expect the political events in Europe to have any impact on their business.

Both companies feature Austria in a few tours that are part of an extensive roster of Europe vacations. "Our advance bookings on all of our escorted tours that include Austria are very strong," Van Metter said.

Meanwhile, Patricia Dimino, owner of Livingston, N.J.-based Patrician Journeys, a retailer and wholesaler that focuses on Austria, said the Freedom Party's new role in Austria's government would impact her business.

"First, this is going to hurt Jewish tourism, and potentially tours to the Danube and those that include Austria. I think some people considering Austria will opt instead for Germany and Switzerland, which have similar attractions," she said.

Phil Scheidt, president of the active travel firm Wanderweg Holidays in Cherry Hill, N.J., saw things differently.

"Austria is outselling Switzerland for us; I don't think you'll see a boycott because the country has just too much to offer for vacationers," said Scheidt.

He said his clients would be more concerned about safety issues in developing countries than politics in western Europe.

Said Eduard Schmiege, director of Journeys of Discovery in San Diego: "The mass market may not be affected by a situation like this, but we handle university alumni who are well educated and might be influenced by political activities abroad."

Austrian Airlines president Franz Zochbauer, based in New York, echoed Schmiege's worries. "Incentive groups might choose another destination [over] Austria if they have a choice -- one doesn't have to be Einstein to figure that out."

The Austrian Tourist Office here said it was instructed to not comment on the possible repercussions of Haider's recent political success.

Austria accounted for slightly more than 4% of all U.S. traffic to Europe last year.

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