CHINA BEACH AFIRE WITH TOURISM PLANS

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Once artillery fire boomed across China Beach. Once young Americans lay broken and bleeding in a military hospital in a place of pristine beauty on the eastern coast of Vietnam.

Now, nearly 20 years after the war's end, this 12-mile expanse of white sand and crystal waters-immortalized in the ABC TV series "China Beach"-stands silent and beautiful.

One small hotel houses tourists, most of them Vietnamese, and a few Americans come to reclaim some of their past.

But if Bob Bernstein and his group of Western investors have their way, one of Asia's last undeveloped frontiers will soon become a haven for tourists in an ambitious $250 million China Beach development project.

His targets: Asian tourists lured by the proximity of Hong Kong and Japan; Europeans hungry for new vacation frontiers; and an untapped market of millions of American GIs who served in Vietnam.

Mr. Bernstein's Chevy Chase, Md.-based BBI Investment Group, of which he is president, plans to sign a joint venture with the Vietnamese government soon.

The project will begin with the renovation of an existing hotel and eventual construction of four others. Mr. Bernstein said the group will welcome offers from hotel chains that "would like to put their names on the marquee and provide management," but BBI will retain ownership.

"There will be one golfing hotel tied to the golf course where we expect Japanese golfers will fly in for long weekends," Mr. Bernstein said. A family oriented complex will feature water-based activities, but Mr. Bernstein sees almost everyone as a potential visitor.

"We anticipate a large number of Americans," he said. "Three million GIs went through Da Nang [the giant former American air base nearby] during the war. A lot will want to go back."

In fact, many veterans like Ron Miller, executive director of the Georgia Veterans Association, feel it is very much the time for Americans to return. He recently went to China Beach to relive memories as a helicopter pilot.

"For most veterans, Vietnam was a defining moment in their lives. Many want to revisit it, trying to recapture something found or lost," Mr. Miller said.

Alex Wells, who who blasted Viet Cong targets as a young Marine artillery officer, has made several sentimental journeys back. He now spends most of his time working to bring about reconciliation between former enemies. His Vietnamese partner, Le Huy Vu, was the Viet Cong commander in the area where Mr. Wells fought and now has a travel business at China Beach.

Will Mr. Wells continue his trips when BBI's project is complete?

"Absolutely. So many people are interested in going on organized tours there. It is time now."

China Beach is far from unknown to Europeans and Asians. On any given day, viewers in 50 countries can see reruns of the 61-episode TV series that ran weekly in the U.S. in 1987-91.

And the beauty of Vietnam is legendary.

"Europeans are always looking for a new frontier for vacationing," Mr. Bernstein said.

And the country's proximity to Taiwan, Japan, the Philippines, and Korea make it a natural for the Asian tourist market.

Marketing plans are not yet firm since renovation of the existing 100-room Non Nuoc Seaside Resort won't be complete for more than a year. The golf resort will be ready for guests in 18 months to 24 months.

Mr. Bernstein, 49, is not one of those nostalgic Vietnam War veterans. He's a lawyer and businessman who became interested in opportunities in Vietnam and realized the country's potential for tourism. With no previous experience in resort development, he's hired a passel of travel consultants and said he will add an international marketing consultant.

China Beach has already started to make a name for itself as a tourist haven. An international surfing competition in the summer of 1993 was covered extensively by ESPN.

Even the hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese who emigrated to the U.S. are a target.

But Yung Krall, a war bride who left her country 20 years ago and now lives in Atlanta, said she won't be going back.

"It's too painful for me," Ms. Krall said. "I still have a big family there, but I just couldn't go back and stay in a luxury hotel when my people are still so poor."

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