Israel on-site: Jerusalem tourism down $1.5B

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 third report follows:

JERUSALEM -- The Israeli capital is the last stop on my weeklong sojourn in a country where tourism is in shambles because of the Palestinian-Israeli violence that has been reported on the front pages and on TV for nearly a year.

Tourism in this city, partially surrounded by territory that the Palestinian Authority controls, has taken a particularly severe blow.

In addition, Jerusalem, unlike resort destinations, is not getting much of a compensating boost from domestic tourism.

Mazal Shami, director, hosting operations, Israel Ministry of Tourism, said the capital has lost $1.5 billion in tourism revenues since the outbreak of violence last October. Based on a report issued Sept. 9, hotel business is off 69%; also, 4,000 tourism-related jobs have been lost in the area.

She said that across Israel, 30 hotels have closed; 11 of them are in Jerusalem.

In a remarkably candid interview, Shami reviewed my experiences moving easily about the country and said she was deeply frustrated to know "one really can travel freely, comfortably and without fear of danger here. However, not enough people believe that." She -- like her industry counterparts in other cities -- said she understood the public's reaction to news reports about Israel.

What would she say to a client if she were a travel agent?

"Things happen everywhere. People didn't stop visiting Oklahoma City, or England or Ireland, or Spain now because of the Basques. There can be problems anywhere."

"If you ever had it in mind to go to Israel, there's no reason not to now. Tourists are never the target here.

"I'd say that if I were an agent," she said. "[But] only those who really want to come can be convinced by this argument."

Shami said she knows the violence has to stop before many travelers will be comfortable.

Rina Maor, director, Eilat & Negev Region, Israel Ministry of Tourism, speaks for an area that has been removed from the violence. Nevertheless, Maor said, she does not wish to promote Eilat by emphasizing its safety to the detriment of other parts of the country.

Instead, the southern resort city simply promotes itself as "Eilat on the Red Sea" rather than highlighting its location in Israel.

Other spokesmen in the south, and in the Dead Sea area as well, did highlight safety and their distance from the violence.

I had been greeted at the Dan Hotel in Eilat with the comment that this was a "country within a country." Two days later, I heard the Dead Sea region described with precisely the same words.

It doesn't matter too much, however, if these areas emphasize their relative safety or if they believe foreign tourists should feel more secure. Israel's tourism is off everywhere, even in the "safe" places. Shami said the country, which normally would have about 3 million foreign visitors this year, will have 1 million.

And, several observers agreed, even after the violence stops, it will take about a year for Israeli tourism to get back to normal.

American pilgrimage not deterred by violence

QUMRAN, Israel -- On my sixth day in Israel, I finally encountered my first American tourist, at Qumran, the place where the Dead Sea Scrolls were found in 1947.

In fact, there were 39 American tourists with their leader, Rev. Robert Collins, who is pastor of a Baptist church in the Kansas City, Mo., area. The organizer of the group's 11-day pilgrimage is TTI Travel in Wheeling, Ill.

Collins said, with this trip, he has led 49 trips and 1,476 tourists to Israel since 1976.

He said he has continued to lead groups to Israel through every kind of political situation faced by Israel in the last 25 years and plans to lead another group next May.

In the last few weeks before the current trip, Collins said he had calls from concerned travelers, most of whom were first-timers to Israel. In the end, none canceled out of concern over violence in Israel.

To help clients put matters into perspective, Collins said, he told them he had a lot to lose personally if the group encountered serious trouble, and he asked, "Why would I jeopardize that?"

He said he told them, "The more you listen to the media, the more fear [you have]. You have to filter that through those who have been in Israel." He said he also advised: "Tune out CNN."

On the practical side, he said, "we don't go where we are in jeopardy... We don't do things we did in the past."

He said he used to lead his groups on nighttime strolls down Ben Yehuda Street in Jerusalem, a pedestrian street noted for its cafes, shopping and sidewalk entertainment.

Saying that the violence is not aimed at tourists, he continued, "we won't gather where people might want to do harm to Israelis."

Collins' group flew into Amman, Jordan, and will leave the same way, traveling between Jordan and Israel by bus.

The travelers were scheduled to go to Bethlehem Sept. 10. Collins said he and his group would change motorcoaches and guides for the period of time spent in Palestinian Authority territory.

Collins said the group is "having a great time." At Masada, he asked the tour members if they had felt fearful during the trip and "they laughed" at the question, he said.

Get more:
Israel on-site: Eilat on 'the end of the world'
Israel on-site: A telling tour of Tel-Aviv

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