Israel operators remain optimistic

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NEW YORK -- While agents might be uncertain about selling their clients on Israel, tour operators specializing in the Holy Land said they are starting to see business pick up.

"I'm not sitting here and saying everything's perfect and wonderful," said Meir Weingarten, president of Brooklyn, N.Y.-based Ariel Tours.

"Nobody in this market is living in some sort of fairy-tale land, but the fact is there are agents selling Israel."

The June 1 bombing in Tel Aviv -- which killed 21 people -- was such a searing event that many viewed it as a turning point toward peace. Yet, the turmoil resurfaced and has continued.

However, Weingarten said business was not impacted by either the bombing, the hesitant peace overtures or the violence that followed it.

Ya'lla Tours makes the decision to tour Bethlehem on the day of the scheduled visit. Above, Manger Square. Weingarten said his firm will have a busy August and expects brisk business for the Jewish holidays in early October.

"It's been a little quieter since Tel Aviv, but we haven't seen that [the bombing] has had a major, dramatic effect on the marketplace," said Weingarten.

The peace efforts in June had a "tremendous positive impact" for Ya'lla Tours, according to Ronen Paldi, president of the Portland, Ore.-based tour operator.

"We had a lot of people sitting on the fence, unsure of whether to continue with their plans or not," Paldi said.

The tentative cease-fire in June caused a rush of business, he said, as the firm filled its November and December groups, with a heavy dose of Christian pilgrimages.

The company's 2002 schedule also is selling well.

Ariel Tours has sent many solidarity groups to Israel during the troubles, with more slated for August. Solidarity groups are travelers who proclaim support for Israel by visiting the country during difficult times.

"The Jewish community is expressing that we're not abandoning Israel, by [visiting] at a time when it's not necessarily comfortable to come," said Weingarten.

However, Weingarten added that he does understand the concerns of agents who are hesitant about sending clients to Israel.

"I don't blame them, and the only way to counter it is through education," he said. "Your average travel agent doesn't have that level of familiarity."

Tour operators have had to juggle itineraries for safety reasons.

Paldi said Ya'lla removed Jericho, in the heart of the West Bank, from its programs. Paldi also said that the decision to visit Bethlehem, also in the West Bank, is made on the day of the trip.

Paldi maintained that Israel was as safe, if not more so, than the U.S., and pointed to the damage wrought by Tropical Storm Allison in mid-June, as a reminder that bad things happen at home, as well.

"It is a tragedy, it is devastating, but let's remember that bad things happen in the U.S. and in Europe, and life in Israel continues as normal," said Paldi.

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