Agents: Tensions in Holy Land affecting tourism

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NEW YORK -- As the troubles in the Holy Land continue despite the tentative steps toward peace made in June, mainstream agents are finding Israel a difficult destination to deal with in their relations with clients.

Agents reported little or no client interest in trips to Israel, though each recommended and regularly sold visits to the Holy Land in the past.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which erupted last fall, changed everything.

"There are no requests, and at this point I wouldn't feel comfortable at all selling Israel," said Bonnie Minutillo, travel consultant at Travl Travl Travl in Chicago.

In better times, Minutillo said, there was "interest and activity" to Israel, "but with the situation last fall, it just stopped."

Vicki Sammartino, owner of Gordon Travel Service in Pittsburgh, tried to promote a group tour to Israel, but the trip never got off the ground due to lack of interest.

Like other agents, Sammartino said she considers Israel a "wonderful destination," but has difficulty in suggesting the country as a place to visit with the current problems.

"Customers are just afraid to travel there," Sammartino said. "Basically, they ask me and I have to tell them what I read in the papers, but they are very well aware of the conditions.

"Obviously, I will sell a trip to Israel if someone comes in and wants it and understands the conditions and the problems that can ensue. As for recommending it, I don't."

Babette Rinis, president of Rinis Travel Service in Silver Spring, Md., said her leisure business to Israel has been "almost nonexistent."

"I'm not uncomfortable about [traveling to Israel], and I would go, but I'm not traveling," said Rinis. "The clientele is not as comfortable, and people just aren't coming in about [Israel]."

To counter the perceptions spread by television and other news media, the Israel Ministry of Tourism recently introduced an advertising campaign with the tag line, "The Israel you don't see on the nightly news."

The ads use pictures of tourists at notable Israeli sites, indicating the date of the photo. The idea: People are traveling to Israel, and it's safe.

"I get a feeling of sadness seeing [the ads] because it's such a beautiful place," said Minutillo.

Sammartino has seen the ministry's ad campaign and agrees with its message that the majority of Israel is unaffected by the problems.

She has personal experience with how the mainstream media can distort perceptions -- she was in Cairo following a plane hijacking in the '80s, and television news coverage focused on anti-Western demonstrations outside the U.S. Embassy.

But Sammartino spent eight days in the city and didn't see anything or have any problems.

Yet, she said, it's essential for agents to pay attention to world events, if only to protect themselves legally or financially.

"You have to be conscious of the news media," said Sammartino. "We are so vulnerable for every little thing."

Agents generally agreed on the notion that business to Israel would pick up once peace was reestablished. Still, it will be a hard road.

"It would take some time to boost up, but I would have no hesitation selling that area," said Minutillo. "When it comes back, they've got a lot of work ahead of them."

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