Crisis in Israel affecting operators

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NEW YORK -- Some tour operators have modified itineraries and/or relaxed cancellation policies for travelers booked to Israel and the Middle East, but tourism professionals who specialize in the region remain cautiously optimistic about future business.

Before the latest violence, traffic to the Middle East was booming. Cooperation between Israel and two of its neighbors -- Egypt and Jordan -- was starting to pay off with increased visitor traffic to all three countries, said Samir Khalil of Misr Travel here.

Groups to Egypt for the coming season are still holding, he said, although he expects group numbers to shrink in size.

An El Al spokeswoman said, "We have had very little in the way of cancellations," but, to help travelers during this period, Israel's carrier instituted a policy through Nov. 1 of offering refunds for nonrefundable tickets.

Elie Sidawi, president of Sunny Land Tours in Hackensack, N.J., said, "We are modifying programs to the Middle East to omit Israel and offer Egypt."

Travelers holding travel arrangements to the region on Sunny Land Tours will have no cancellation penalties; they may rebook for the future or request full refunds.

"As of today, the Middle East situation is unpredictable," Sidawi said, "and we are considering our options and operations one day at a time."

Ady Gelber, president of New York-based Isram World of Travel, is urging travelers to hold on even while he has expanded his policy of offering full credits for those who opt to postpone their trips.

Gelber said Isram is "operating tours normally" and had 500 clients in Israel during the clashes, but that "no one is coming home or canceling."

If clients were patient but ultimately had to cancel, Isram promised to add a $100 credit to its standing offer of applying money already paid to a future trip to any of its destinations worldwide.

The crisis hit Israel at its peak tourist season, which is dominated by heavy travel for the fall Jewish holidays.

"We have dozens of family groups there for the holidays," said Meir Weingarten, president of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Ariel Tours. "They all say they are OK and say there's no reason to cancel."

Moreover, he said, "we are hopeful that things will go back to the great season we had until now."

At least one travel agent took a serious hit, however. Sandi Goldschmidt, a travel consultant with the Travel Group in Englewood Cliffs, N.J., said she had 60 clients, most of them Jewish FITs, who were scheduled to travel to Israel this month. About a third have canceled.

One group was adamant about not canceling its plans.

A 12-day pilgrimage to Israel from San Antonio, organized by Portland, Ore.-based Ya'lla Tours USA and led by Ya'lla president Ronen Paldi, departed on schedule Oct. 9 with more than the 160 originally scheduled.

They were headed to the Tabernacles festival held annually in Jerusalem. Paldi said prior to departure he expected no problems even on the journey from Tiberias to Jerusalem, on a road that borders the West Bank.

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