Israel ads aim to counter 'nightly news' image

Contributing editor Shuly Kustanowitz spent the first 10 days of December in Israel.

JERUSALEM -- After putting its marketing program on hold earlier this fall, Israel's tourism ministry here approved a major push to revive its tourism industry.

A major advertising campaign is set to begin in the U.S. in mid-December on radio and in print, featuring a peaceful scene in Israel and describing it as "the Israel you don't see on the nightly news," a ministry spokesman said.

Tourism throughout Israel was hit hard by deadly violence that began in late September, although nearly all of it has been confined to Palestinian-controlled areas in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.

Two exceptions are the Old City's Temple Mount, where there was a riot in late September, and Gilo, where the southern end of Jerusalem meets Palestinian areas and artillery exchanges have been frequent.

The only significant tourist site in the Palestinian-controlled West Bank is Bethlehem, and travel there traditionally is barred by Israeli authorities to protect visitors during disturbances.

In the capital, hotels are all open, according to Jonathan Harpaz, head of the Jerusalem Hotel Association, but occupancy in November averaged 20%.

Several hotels have closed some floors of their properties or reduced staff to limit operating costs.

"It's better in Tel Aviv," Harpaz said, estimating occupancy there at about 30%. In Tel Aviv, the Crowne Plaza said it was fully booked for most of December.

In the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, hotels reported an occupancy level of about 75% even in a depressed tourism market, said Rina Maor, director of the southern region for the Israel Ministry of Tourism, but many of the guests are Israelis on vacation.

Our group found no apparent extra security or police presence at the airport or on the streets, no roadblocks on the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem and no army convoys on the highways.

At the Jerusalem Hilton, hotel employees of Jewish, Palestinian and other identities seemed at ease as they worked together.

The only Old City tourist site closed to visitors was the Temple Mount, where emotions tend to flare among Muslims who continue to gather there for prayer.

Below the Temple Mount, Jewish worshippers performed their religious obligations at the Western Wall, but the visitor's area at the rear of the plaza, usually a mingling place for both Jewish and Christian pilgrims, was empty.

Some FIT visitors to Israel have an interest in seeing places near Palestinian-controlled areas, sites that are off the beaten track. But the majority of Israel's tourists come to see the historical and religious sites in the northern Galilee, get a glimpse of the high-tech central part of the country or take in the drama of the southern desert.

For those reasons, efforts are being made to have the U.S. State Department's travel warnings softened, according to a group of U.S. mayors who were in Israel in early December to assess the situation first hand.

"Yes, the stories are overblown," said Meyera Oberndorf, mayor of the City of Virginia Beach, Va., who said the U.S. ambassador to Israel, Martin Indyk, promised the group he would do what he could to reduce the travel warning.

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