Tanks at Heathrow Airport put on patrol amid fears of a terror attack were a "public relations disaster" for the UK's tourism industry, it has been claimed.
Tanks raised travel fears
Many Americans believed martial law had been declared when they saw images of hundreds of troops patrolling the airport for a few days last month, according to the European Tour Operators Association (ETOA).
Bookings from the United States were down by 80% year-on-year for February - the traditional peak booking time for American and Japanese tourists.
The association's head Tom Jenkins said: "The effect was instantaneous and devastating."
The news deals a further blow to the UK tourism industry which has sought to recover from the £5bn cost of the foot-and-mouth crisis of 2001.
Industry experts are confident tourism will recover in the long term once the crisis of an impending war with Iraq is over.
But Mr Jenkins told BBC News Online that for now tourists from America and Japan were staying away.
Images of tanks at Heathrow were the biggest public relations disaster since Prime Minister Tony Blair wore his chemical suit during the foot-and-mouth crisis, he said.
"To Americans it looked like martial law had been declared.
"It looked like troops were driving around civilian parts of the UK.
"The impact has been pan-continental. People are not going to Europe," said Mr Jenkins.
The effect of the tanks only precipitated a predictable collapse in demand from the long haul market during a war.
"The industry has seen catastrophic decline before and is no longer shocked by the scale of the current slump," he said.
But when the recovery does happen it would have to be managed well, including greater government investment in promoting tourism, he said.
About 450 troops were deployed in February along with about 1,000 police, after intelligence reports suggested terrorists might be plotting a missile attack on a passenger plane.
But not everyone believes the effect of images of the tanks was so devastating.
A spokesman for the British Hospitality Association said people found the images distressing at the time but he did not consider that they had had a long term impact on tourism.
Instead it was the possibility of a war with Iraq that would have major ramifications for business.
"If the war comes, which is looking increasingly likely, it would have a very serious impact on tourism in London," he said.
But he said it might encourage Britons to holiday in the UK.
Anecdotal evidence suggests foreign tourists are adopting a "wait and see" policy on booking UK holidays, according to the British Tourism Authority.
Early indications seem to be the threat of war is having an impact on tourism, said spokesman Elliott Frisby.
However the experience post-Gulf War demonstrated tourism would recover, although the American market might take longer.
"People will travel and very quickly," he said.
In the meantime for those brave enough to travel to Britain, 2003 could be a "fantastic year" to pick up a bargain, said Mr Jenkins.
"There will be cheap prices and much availability," he said.