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Skiing Into Terror

Cold Front
posted: 09/22/2004

Two members of ETA, the basque separatist group, hop into a van that's loaded with explosives and head toward Madrid. On their to-do list: Travel to Baqueira Beret ski area in the Pyrenees, and assassinate members of Spain's royal family, who, alongside thousands of innocent bystanders, are vacationing at the resort. Sound like a nightmare scenario? It's not. This very plot was foiled last February when authorities arrested the two men in central Spain. Under interrogation, the suspects confessed the details of their scheme, which by one news account included a thousand pounds of explosives stuffed into 13 knapsacks.

Then, in March, a train station full of ski commuters in the French city of Grenoble was evacuated when a domestic group known as AZF (named after a 2001 chemical-plant explosion) called in a bomb threat. According to an April Boston Globe story, AZF demanded $6.1 million-or else.
The incidents sent tremors-and hearsay-through the international skiing community: Skiers, and ski areas, seemed to have finally made the terror hit lists. Never mind that ETA began wreaking havoc across Spain 40 years before the war on terror became a catchphrase, or that no bombs were found at the Grenoble station.

Which means, don't expect armed guards at European ski areas anytime soon. Resort managers on the continent are fairly blasé about the likelihood of on-piste terror. "We have not taken additional measures for security. We don't think we're directly threatened by any terrorist group," says Eric Guilpart, vice president of Compagnie des Alpes, a French business operating 12 resorts (including Meribel and Chamonix) that see a combined 10 million skier visits each year. "We believe that an attack in Europe would be carried out on U.S. interests-like the Disney park."

But with American ski trips across Europe down by 20 percent, European ski-tourism officials aren't blind to terror's effects. Says Bernard Prudhomme, director of Chamonix's office of tourism: "From the U.S., skiing here is seen as a little dangerous."

But that's where the issue gets fuzzy: Are Americans staying home because they're scared or because they don't have the money or time? Short of conducting a Gallup poll, the answer to that question is unclear. Besides a few Howitzers that were recently recalled from U.S. resorts for use in Afghanistan, terrorism and American skiing haven't crossed paths-not here, anyway. According to the National Ski Areas Association, last season was the U.S.'s third-busiest ever ('02-'03 holds the record). "Last year we set an all-time high for skier visits," says Ski Utah's Nathan Rafferty. "I think it's the weak dollar that's keeping people out of Europe."

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