Israel: Full Speed Ahead

Looking toward what may well become Israel's largest tourist influx ever, the Israel Ministry of Tourism is seeking to "lighten up" Israel -- or at least lighten up the way it is presented to potential American visitors.

The country is widely regarded as a "profound" destination, according to surveys conducted for the Israel Ministry of Tourism.

And while that is certainly appropriate, if not inevitable, for a land that three major religions consider holy, Arie Sommer, Israeli consul and commissioner for tourism, North America, said Israel's image could use some adjusting.

To do that, he said, two themes will be stressed in future ads: Fun and safety.

American visitors, he said, will testify in ads to the fun and the wide range of experiences they had in Israel and the impression of personal safety they felt while they were there.

Print ads, with the tag line "No One Belongs Here More Than You," will be expanded to highlight fun activities and will be tailored to various markets.

Both of Israel's major U.S. market segments, Christians and Jews, are being targeted by the ministry.

To stimulate Jewish interest in visiting or revisiting Israel, the ministry published a supplement, "After 40 Centuries, It's Great to Be 50," in Jewish newspapers around the country. The supplement describes the 4,000-year relationship between the Promised Land and the Chosen People.

Ads will encourage Jewish-oriented travel, such as trips for families with a teen celebrating a bar/bat mitzvah (coming-of-age) ceremony.

Among efforts to engage the Christian segment of the market will be ads placed in publications that reach ministers and lay professionals.

The potential of the Christian share of the market is enormous. Over the past 10 years, the proportion of Christian visitors from the U.S. -- mostly Roman Catholics and Evangelicals -- has expanded from comprising one-third of the U.S. market to two-thirds, and the number of Christian visitors is expected to swell even more at the turn of the millennium.

Because the pope is encouraging Catholics to visit the Holy Land in upcoming years, tours that combine Italy with Israel would be of special importance, according to Sommer.

Tourism ministry surveys also indicate, he said, that visitors would be interested in plans that combine Israel with stops in neighboring Greece, Turkey, Jordan and Egypt.

Sommer said arrangements are being made to handle the influx, especially at religious sites. Of special interest, he said, are the settings for stories from the Gospels.

Overall, officials said, Israel can expect some 5 million visitors at the turn of the millennium -- double the previous high in 1995. Last year's total was 2.2 million.

The present infrastructure could handle a doubling of tourist volume, said David Litvak, Jerusalem-based director general of Israel's Ministry of Tourism, but attending to the flood of visitors will require careful coordination between the Jewish state and Christian organizations around the world to stagger observance dates.

To that end, Litvak has been conferring with Vatican, Southern Baptist, Evangelical and Eastern Orthodox Church officials.

The state is considering the construction of villages with bungalow-like accommodations to house pilgrims, he said.

Since interest in Israel is expected to climb, the tourism ministry has taken two steps toward making information about Israel readily available both to the public and to travel professionals.

One step was the establishment of the Tourism Information Center for North America, based in the ministry's New York office. According to director Dina Aharon, the center receives nearly 4,000 inquiries a month from information agents, clergymen and organizations.

The center also can supply statistics on the effectiveness of area advertising and how much material has been requested in various regions or states or for what purpose, such as touring, religious pilgrimage or business.

Another major source of information for Americans is Israel's Web site (www.goisrael.com), which offers information for tourists, agents, tour hosts and organizers. Agent information includes general information about the country and specific information about the 50th birthday celebrations, a wholesaler list arranged by region, convention and incentive organizers and centers, and links with suppliers.

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