Paris Tourism Up Despite Economic Woes

View of the Eiffel Tower during the celebrations to display the new lightings with 20,000 light bulbs linked by 25 miles of illuminated garlands, in Paris Saturday June 21, 2003. The Eiffel Tower has welcomed over 200 million visitors since it opened for the 1889 World's Fair. (AP Photo/Francois Mori)
Paris tourism officials said Tuesday they expect visits to hold up this year despite a huge drop in the number of U.S. visitors - many pinched by an expensive euro, fuel-inflated prices for airline tickets and economic woes at home.

The number of Americans, traditionally the largest group of foreign visitors to the French capital, tumbled 20 percent in the six months until June, according to figures based on overnight hotel stays. Paul Roll, director of Paris' Tourism Office, said he expects a similar fall in the second half of the year.

The drop was compensated for by an increase in visitors from neighboring Britain, which overtook the United States as Paris' top foreign client in the first half.

Paris has also succeeded in attracting increasing numbers of new visitors from places like the Middle East, India, South America and Eastern Europe.

Overall, the number of visitors increased 2.2 percent to 17.3 million in the first half.

"Paris is doing well," said Jean-Claude Lesourd, president of Paris' Tourism Office. "2008 will be a very good year - as good as last year, and perhaps even better."

His optimism contrasts with the outlook for the global economy, which continues to be wobbly despite the recent fall in oil prices and the euro's retreat from record highs against the dollar.

On the streets of Paris, many North American tourists said they are feeling the pain.

"Paris is an expensive city, but I never thought it would be this bad," said Veronique Lesage. The 25-year-old from Quebec City took a short break to Paris from Scotland, where she is working as a receptionist.

"I'm glad I'm paying for this trip with British pounds because you don't get much for your Canadian dollar," she said.

Anne More, 76, visiting Paris with two friends from Naples, Florida, paid for her ticket with frequent flyer miles, avoiding the fuel surcharge. But she says the expensive euro is making life difficult.

"We've had to cut back on a lot of things," she said as she admired the golden statues adorning the Palais Garnier opera.

However, hotels in Paris were able to raise prices in the first half - with average prices up 6.4 percent, according to figures complied by MKG Hospitality consultants.

But there's still that special Parisian je ne sais quoi.

The Rosmadis, a Malaysian family living in the British city of Norwich, chose to make their first trip to Paris "mostly for Eurodisney," said Atirak, 15. "And because Paris is a dream city," chimed in her sister, Amalia, 18.

Julia Mojica saved half her salary for a year to pay for a ticket to Paris. But the soon-to-be grandmother from the Dominican Republic has a very special reason for coming: her daughter, who lives in Paris, is expecting a baby.

"It's very expensive, but I had to be here for the birth," she said.