Israel bookings holding... for now

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NEW YORK -- Operators and agents with clients booked on Israel trips said they are experiencing varying degrees of cancellations, but most reservations were holding steady for the holiday season in December.

Violent confrontations between Israelis and Palestinians, which left about 100 dead, started in late September -- the precise time of year that signals the beginning of what should be Israel's peak tourist season.

Greenwich, Conn.-based Unitours, which specializes in Christian pilgrimages to Israel, was hit pretty hard, according to sales manager Larry Oliveri.

"This was the big season," he said, and "we've gotten calls from about 75% of our clients saying they want to switch."

Although groups for mid-November through December were still holding, "we've lined up shadow itineraries [to Europe, especially Italy] just in case."

Unitours is continuing to promote its Israel packages, however, because its "guides, drivers and managers in Israel are extremely cautious and would tell us if it were not safe."

Minimal impact was reported by Ronen Paldi, president of Ya'lla Tours USA in Portland, Ore., who took a pilgrimage group from Texas to Israel in mid-October and said "it went extremely well."

Cancellations of upcoming bookings started in earnest after the Oct. 11 lynching of two Israeli soldiers, he said, and most of that was for immediate travel.

In November, his firm is scheduled to send 35 groups of varying sizes and he estimates the cancellation rate at about 15% of the individuals, not the groups.

The Christmas season is holding so far, he said, and his main push is for February, which is Ya'lla's peak season for Christian pilgrimages.

"Some people go anyway. They feel that's where they belong," said Seffie Epstein, executive director of Ayelet Tours in Albany, N.Y.

About 60% of the tour operator's business goes to Israel, he said, and of the six 35-person groups scheduled to go in October, only one canceled.

Reservations are "very high" for the firm's November peak season and they are holding, but cancellations are starting, he said.

Some groups have inquired about rescheduling, but "no groups said they're not going at all," Epstein said. Travel agents are having a range of experiences, too.

"I thought there would be a bigger reaction," said Eytan Gelbwachs, vice president of New York-based Galore Travel. "There have not been so many cancellations."

Out of 550 people booked for Oct. 9 to 12, the agency had 9 cancellations, he said.

"People are playing it day by day," he said. "I have the feeling that people, after they talk with family members who are there, feel stronger about going."

But about 75% of Philadelphia-based Gil Travel's megavolume to Israel was postponed. According to Igal Hami, its president and chief executive officer, about half the firm's business goes to Israel, 75% of it in groups.

The firm specializes in megamissions of as many as several thousand traveling together from an organization such as a youth group.

"November is still on the fence and Christmas is big and is holding," he said.

Meanwhile, Royal Caribbean is altering the 1,800-passenger Legend of the Seas' Nov. 8 sailing. The line is eliminating port calls in Haifa and Ashdod, Israel, on Nov. 20 and 21 and a Nov. 25 call in Aquaba, Jordan.

Legend instead will visit Kusadasi, Turkey, on Nov. 19 and Santorini, Greece, on Nov. 20, with a day at sea also added to the itinerary. A help desk for travel agents can be contacted at (888) 263-3483.

Earlier this week, Norwegian Cruise Line's Norwegian Dream and Radisson Seven Seas Cruises' Song of Flower altered their courses to steer clear of ports in Israel and Yemen.

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