Israel on-site: A telling tour of Tel-Aviv

Travel Weekly editor at large Nadine Godwin is touring Israel for a first-hand look at a nation whose tourism industry has suffered for nearly a year as a result of an extended siege of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Her first report follows:

TEL AVIV -- My El Al flight from New York to Tel Aviv was packed, a fact that seems at odds with reports that travel to Israel dropped sharply in the last year.

However, among the passengers, there seemed to be no one who was part of a tour group.

The bulk of the passengers -- speaking Hebrew -- were either returning Israelis (who, judging by the luggage, clearly had done a lot of shopping in the U.S.), travelers visiting friends and family or students.

Indeed, El Al confirmed that flights had been full in the last two to three weeks because nearly 2,500 students flew to Israel to begin year-long studies in the country.

U.S. arrivals to Israel fall sharplyMonth19992000 October 47,018 25,513 November 57,169 16,883 December 33,595 20,610 Month20002001 January 32,418 23,659 February 37,484 21,832 March 52,086 26,443 April 37,293 26,262 May 54,148 22,235 June 65,964 26,548 July 60,339 23,383 Totals477,514233,368

It was hard to believe, judging from both the flight and the hour spent watching baggage claim activity at Ben Gurion International Airport, that Israel could have reported a 51% drop in visitor arrivals from the U.S. between October 2000 and July of this year. In addition, its reported drop in worldwide arrivals in the first four months of this year was a near-identical 50%.

I spent my first day here sightseeing in Tel Aviv and Old Jaffa, the ancient port and suburb, in an atmosphere that felt far removed from the world's troubles. But I did not spot a single American visitor.

Admittedly, this was not science, but my guide confirmed the effects of the Palestinian-Israeli violence on her business.

She said she and other guides typically were busy every day of the month, but now, if they get work for a week or 10 days out of a month, they are doing well. She talked at dinner of taking work as a waitress or in a hotel.

Etty Gargir, director general of the Association for Tourism Tel Aviv-Jaffa, said this coastal city is lucky because it is a business destination -- and also because it offers options for visitors at all budget levels.

What was left unsaid is that, although Tel Aviv is not unscathed by terrorist attacks, it is farther than other destinations from Israel's hottest spots.

Gargir said the businessmen are still coming to town, but arrivals are off about 30% from arrivals a year ago.

It is a popular beach destination for Europeans, but for Americans its appeal is music, museums and other cultural elements; Old Jaffa, with its shops and ancient charms, and restaurants. There also is a lively nightlife.

Typically, American visitors spend a short period in Tel Aviv and visit other parts of Israel during trips of at least a week's length. But Gargir wants to attract long-haul passengers for longer stays in "the city that never stops."

Therefore, she said, her office worked with the tourism ministry and hoteliers to create seven-day packages to Tel Aviv for sale in the U.S., as well as Europe, with an Oct. 8 start date for the program. The packages will include local sightseeing, a one-day trip to Jerusalem and coupon books offering discounts to Tel Aviv and Jaffa attractions and shops.

The program was not devised specifically to counter the falloff in business in the wake of Palestinian-Israeli violence, Gargir said. It already was in the local tourism association's long-term plan.

She said the program will be supported with advertising in the U.S., and agents wanting more information can contact the Israeli tourist board in New York at (888) 77-ISRAEL.

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