ASTA: Retailers' role to alert, advise

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NEW YORK -- What role should travel agents play when clients are looking to visit a destination deemed unsafe by the U.S. government?

This is the question retailers selling Israel are facing when it comes to clients seeking to visit the Holy Land. Travel Weekly recently put the question to ASTA president Richard Copland.

"Certainly, it is difficult for an agent to recommend going to Israel at this time unless it's some type of an emergency," he said. "Agents are advocates for the traveling public," Copland continued. "They have a responsibility to be aware of government advisories" and to present that knowledge to the client, even if it seems reasonable to assume the client is well aware of a threatening situation.

"I can't believe anyone doesn't know what's going on," he said, "but the agent still has a responsibility to let [clients] know, give advice and counseling. Then it's up to the client to make the final decision."

Regarding Israel's recovery once conditions improve, Sharna Blumenfeld, president of ASTA's Southern Nevada chapter, suggested low-cost fams, marketed to the travel trade, clergy and organizational leaders, as the best way for the Israel Ministry of Tourism and tour operators to get the word out that the Holy Land is safe for tourism again.

"Israeli tour operators are extremely attuned to safety issues and are the best in the world at knowing where, when and how to take visitors to the major attractions," Blumenfeld said. "In order for consumers to feel a bit safer, they must see groups going and coming with no incidents."

Penny Hawkins, owner of Lakes Area Travel Plus in Commerce Township, Mich., and president of ASTA's Michigan chapter, said clients still will go to Israel, no matter how dangerous it is.

"We recently had a group of about 25, including a half-dozen children, who took a religious trip to Israel," she said. "We warned them about the travel, and their answer to us was that God will protect them. They all came back and [said they] had a great time. I was flabbergasted."

Thomas L. Keefe, president of Addison Travel in Andover, Mass., and president of ASTA's New England chapter, said he has had little interest in Israel travel, but he's hopeful for the future.

"We, as agents, have a responsibility to our customers to give them every warning and tell it like it is," he said.

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