Taking the Mickey

Midday on the hottest August day recorded in Paris and Dominique has no customers for his ice-cold bottles of water. Nearby, in the chilled interior of the Rendez-Vous with the Stars restaurant, most of the tables are empty.

A number of refreshment stalls scattered throughout France’s newest theme park appear to be closed. Even the queues for the rides at Walt Disney Studios are disconcertingly short.

Staff in their themed costumes are paid to remain upbeat, United States-style.
“Not many guests? There’ll be more this afternoon,’’ one shop assistant manning an empty gift store says with a concrete smile. Most have been primed to fend off difficult questions.

“We aren’t allowed to talk about visitor numbers,’’ says Nadine at the guest relations window. “But the president has great confidence in the product.’‘

The relentless piped music echoing through the complex’s tarmac expanses can hardly be soothing to the frazzled heads of management officials engrossed in crisis talks in the on-site head office. Disneyland Paris is struggling to fend off bankruptcy, once again.

The chief executive has been forced to announce that the shortfall in ticket sales meant that the company risks soon defaulting on some of its â,¬2,3-billion (about R19,1-billion) debts.

This is the latest of numerous plummets experienced by Euro- disney during its short history.

In 1994, two years after it opened, it had to be saved from bankruptcy with a $2,6-billion (about R19,5-billion) rescue package, and worries only really faded with the fairytale arrival of a billionaire prince from Saudi Arabia who became the company’s biggest investor.

The park’s rebranding as Disneyland Paris helped to improve its “Euro-dismal’’ image.

Loathed by France’s anti-American lobby when it opened, Eurodisney was dismissed by one influential critic as a “cultural Chernobyl’‘.

Eleven years later France is desperate to do everything it can to preserve the business, which employs 12 500 people.

But the real disaster for Disneyland Paris has been the shrivelling of European visitors and the failure of the new park to attract guests.

Numbers are dropping at precisely the time officials need them to boom; if debts are to be repaid, the 13,1-million visitors to the park last year needs to grow to between 16-million and 17-million by next year, which seems highly unlikely

This acute deficit of tourists is one echoed throughout the country and a problem that has had the French government in a tizz.

Diplomatic hostility between the US and France, which threatened trouble earlier this year, has materialised into a striking absence of US visitors. Only two million Americans stayed in French hotels in the first five months of this year — nearly 30% down on last year — a drop that coincides neatly with the US fury at France’s refusal to back a war in Iraq and the American campaign to boycott French products.

American tourists usually spend more money in France than any other nationality and Paris is suffering.

But the problem is more widespread than a lack of Americans.

The Tourism Ministry recently released statistics that show that even the Germans’ fondness for French holidays had waned this year.

The fear of sudden acute respiratory syndrome and unspecified terrorist threats have kept non-European visitors away, while British tourists are discouraged by the strength of the euro. Even the good weather is cited as a problem; northern Europeans won’t pay to sunbathe in France when they can do it in their own back gardens.

France has historically been the world’s favourite tourist destination and last year 77-million foreign visitors generated â,¬100-billion (about R832,3-billion) — 7% of France’s gross domestic product. This year the profits are going to be scant. — Â

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