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Jewish World Review Feb. 21, 2002/ 9 Adar, 5762

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

Conquering fear with the little red-headed guy -- PAPAGAYO GULF, Costa Rica | The little red-headed guy piped up in a voice that carried through the busy terminal at Washington's Dulles International Airport, across the lines of nervous travelers waiting to have their bags, laptops and shoes examined.

"Are we going to crash into a building? You know, like the one we saw on television?''

The adults around him laughed, but nervously, assuring him not to worry, that everything would be OK. A friendly customs agent even gave him a badge for his T-shirt, identifying him as a "junior officer of the U.S. Customs Service (established in 1789).'' He wouldn't take it off for a week.

The moment of high anxiety passed (though not necessarily for the adults). Was the child actually frightened? Or merely responding to the image imprinted in his memory five months earlier?

His mother had turned off the television early on Sept. 11, but that film clip of the crash into the twin towers of the World Trade Center popped up on the television screen over and over for days after that, often unexpectedly, as when the child was changing channels. All his friends in kindergarten talked incessantly about the "crash into the building at ground zero.'' They recalled the fiery images whenever anyone talked about taking an airplane trip.

Eight hours after the little red-headed guy asked his question of the customs agent at Dulles, he was playing with sand buckets and shovels, scooping up the pleasures and delights of building sand castles surrounded by moats on a beach of light brown sand at the edge of the Pacific at Papagayo Bay in Costa Rica.

But his question might never be washed out of the radar of his consciousness. The Islamist terrorists have succeeded -- in imposing the necessary security to the point of harassment, changing travel, spreading a low-grade anxiety across the boarding gates at every airport in the land.

The little red-headed guy was only saying out loud what the adults around him were quietly thinking --and what many adults who weren't there were acting upon merely by staying home. Nobody wants to say what nearly everyone feels in his bones, that the airlines may never fully recover.

Travel is down, way down. Hotels nearly everywhere are suffering a blight of empty rooms. Upscale and down, travel has diminished. The Four Seasons hotels, where guests are embraced in the lap of high-end luxury, report net income down 75 percent for the fourth quarter of 2001. Fewer bookings cut their revenue by 13 percent in January, and this is only a fraction worse that the figures for the entire industry.

Discounters are reaping some benefits as business travelers, who take their families on inexpensive package vacations, are learning to fly on the cheap on business, too, well worth the inconvenience. (They can buy the champagne with change to spare after they land.) Some luxury hotels offer discounts, but many are afraid to reduce rates sharply lest they offend customers still paying a premium for posh.

The super rich, in fact, are probably the least affected by Osama bin Laden and his evil, Douglas D. Gollan, editor of Elite Traveler, a magazine for those for whom price is not an object, tells the New York Times. Mr. Gollan's readers still prefer the private island and the luxury yacht. The magazine reports that the privacy of Turtle Island, off Fiji in the South Pacific, is available for $20,000 a day, with a minimum of two weeks. (But hurry, islands are a bargain at this price.)

The traveler with a lot of money to insulate himself from the ordinary riffraff might consider a submarine. U.S. Submarine Inc. suggests the ultimate security solution at $20 million (torpedoes extra): "In the event of biological, chemical or nuclear warfare-related attack on the U.S., arguably the best alternative you could have would be your own personal luxury submarine.''

The little red-headed guy, however, found a quicker and considerably less expensive way to soothe traveler's heebie-jeebies. Only days after he arrived at Papagayo Gulf he discovered a tropical rain forest, where he could hang in harness like a monkey, flying from tree to tree, Peter Pan without a care in the world. Anxiety, even in the age of terror, has its limits, particularly if you're 6 years old.

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS