Israel arrivals down 50%, but officials optimistic

LONDON -- Arrivals into Israel have dropped by 50% since violence erupted there in September, estimated Itai Eiges, director general of Israel's Ministry of Tourism.

In an interview with Travel Weekly during the World Travel Market here, Eiges said that although the news was bad, "our numbers [before September] were up 50% over 1998, so all is not lost."

In fact, Israel still expects to finish 2000 with a record number of visitors, according to Pinchas Millo, senior deputy director general of marketing, who predicted that 2.5 million tourists would come to Israel by the end of December.

He said that about 400,000 tourists have canceled or delayed their trips to Israel because of the ongoing struggle between Israel and the Palestinians.

Set off by the visit of Israeli opposition leader Ariel Sharon to Jerusalem's Temple Mount, a holy site for Muslims and Jews, the Palestinians began a series of violent protests on Sept. 29 against what they claim is continued and unlawful Israeli occupation of Palestinian land. At least 200 people, mostly Palestinian, have died during the conflict.

Meanwhile, general director Eiges said that business from the U.S. was dramatically reduced, potentially up to 75%, after the U.S. State Department issued a warning against travel to the entire country Oct. 24.

"We think this is completely unfair," said Eiges, "if you look at the warnings from other countries, like the U.K., for instance, they only name a handful of places in Israel that might be unsafe but they don't pan travel to the whole country.

"Most of the country is completely safe to travel and the Israeli government keeps visitors away from any area that is not."

Eiges currently is working through diplomatic channels to have the State Department modify its warning.

Once the atmosphere in Israel "becomes calmer," said Eiges, he will seek an additional $30 million for worldwide promotion.

However, Israel already is reaching out to operators and group leaders in an effort to prove that the country is safe for travelers, Millo said.

"We brought a group of priests here from the U.S. and let them run around on their own in East Jerusalem so they could see for themselves that it was safe."

"We will be doing this with many more religious leaders who might be considering a pilgrimage trip," he added.

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