Dispatch, Israel 1: Violence threatens tourism after big year

JJISRAEL100x80Travel Weekly reporter Johanna Jainchill is spending a week in Israel. The first of her dispatches from the country follows.

Dispatch, Jerusalem: A Tuesday clash on Israel’s border with Gaza that left one casualty on each side reminded me that Israel is still at war.

I arrived here Sunday, one week after Israel ended a three-week military incursion into Gaza, agreeing to a temporary, fragile ceasefire with Gaza’s ruling Hamas party.

Despite the goings-on only 50 miles away, Jerusalem feels almost sleepy. Perhaps it is the weather -- it is unusually warm and dry here -- or the fact that January is one of the slowest months for tourism in Israel. This is a relief for anyone who makes a living from tourism. War isn’t good for anybody, but for Israeli and Palestinian tourism, it threatens to set back six years of gains.

The Gaza offensive began days after Israel declared that a record 3 million people visited Israel in 2008, the most since 2000, when 2.7 million tourists arrived.

ISR-JERUWESTERNWALLThe success of 2000 was lost quickly in 2002, when tourist arrivals plunged to 800,000 during a wave of suicide bombings during the second Palestinian Intifada.

Tourism officials now say that tourism is slightly down compared with last year, but it is the worldwide recession, not the war, that they blame.

Eli Nahmias, director of overseas marketing and tourism projects for the Jerusalem Tourism Authority, said no significant number of groups canceled, but that some groups got smaller during the offensive, according to tour operators. We talked over grilled Mediterranean fish at a Jerusalem restaurant.

In total, new reservations are down about 15%, he said, but that has been going on since November due to the poor world economy.

"Tour operators tell me that people are saying if they can cancel or postpone without penalty, they say, 'Let's hold onto our money for now,' " he said. "It is not the mini-war, which I call a mini-war because it’s very localized and confined to Gaza and just over the border. The media likes to incite people."

Nahmias also noted that Israel’s tourist base has expanded. If people from the United States cancel, they are supplemented by groups from the U.K. and France, or newly emerging groups from Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe, where people are less sensitive to security problems.

ISR-JERUOLDCITYARCHNahmias, whose son was recently in Gaza as a member of the Israeli army, said that even when tensions are on the rise here, tourists have always been safe.

"Tourists were never hurt in this country," he said, "because it is in the interest of Palestinians, as well, to keep tourism flowing."

After spending a day in Jerusalem’s old city, this became obvious. The money I spent on souvenirs and a hummus spread at Abu Shukri restaurant in the Muslim Quarter all flowed into Arab pockets.

"Of course we want peace. We live from visitors," said Rami, an Arab shopkeeper whose family has owned an Old City souvenir stall for several generations. "But it is not up to us to make peace or not. We can only hope."

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