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NOUMÉA, New Caledonia (May 9, 2001 - Oceania Flash/SPC)---Tourism professionals in New Caledonia are increasingly worried at the decrease of air links to the French territory, which is now seriously affecting arrivals, the daily newspaper Les Nouvelles Calédoniennes reports.

Recently, companies like Corsair and AOM have announced cutbacks in their New Caledonia routes, and in some cases they have simply withdrawn.

The first consequence is a serious drop in the yearly number of available seats to and from Paris. From the 125,200 seats available in 1997, the number has now gone down to 60,000, according to figures from New Caledonia's statistical institute ITSEE.

Affected is the hospitality industry.

"This is very alarming. If it goes on like this, some of us will have to sack some of our staff," says New Caledonia Hotel Association secretary and hotel owner Yannick Gloux-Bauchet.

"Most of us are not in the top-of-the-range business. There are only a few up-market hotels here and for them, the Japanese tourists are still coming. But our clients are mostly French, on holidays or visiting the family."

The two withdrawing companies, AOM and Corsair, were also, in the mid-nineties, the first to introduce budget prices (about US$ 1,000 return on the Paris-Nouméa route).

"They also brought a new type of tourist to New Caledonia. If this had been allowed to continue, we could have thrived on a real tourism development, a little bit like in French Polynesia."

The reduction in now can entail long delays in getting a seat from Paris to Nouméa.

And in Nouméa and other New Caledonia tourism spots, hotels and resorts have engaged in a price war (with discounts estimated at 20 to 30 percent compared to prices last year), in order to lure scarce visitors.

Some, like a normally up-market hotel on Nouméa's popular Anse Vata, are reported to have halved prices per night down to 3,000 French Pacific Francs (about US$ 22). Tourism professionals said, at present, some 4,000 jobs are in jeopardy

"The tourism potential is in the region, not in France anymore," tourism industry federation President Serge Thomas said.

"We have seen other crises in the past. This doesn't mean we have to cut on our hotel capacity. On the contrary, we have to go on attracting hotel infrastructures, chains and brands, because this way New Caledonia will seduce and attract airlines," restaurant association President Dominique Lefeivre said.

"But above all, I think we have to struggle for our very own regional airline. New Caledonia is too dependent on private companies that come and go. And I think we often rely too much on metropolitan France for tourism. I believe much more in the regional tourism potential with Japan, Australia, New Zealand. Close to us, there is also South Korea. There are hints in our region and we shouldn't neglect them."

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