Israel unrest affects tourism of entire region

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PETRA, Jordan -- It's a late afternoon in May on the main drag of Petra. A young Jordanian offers a ride in an "air-conditioned taxi" -- the camel he's riding -- for three dinars, a little more than $4. Upon refusal, the price drops quickly, through stages, to about 70 cents.

Beyond the rider, the Cardo Maximus, a road added by the Romans to this ancient city of the Nabateans, stretches for several hundred yards. Not another person, or even a camel, is in sight.

Business is slow at Petra, one of the world's most fabulous archaeological sites and Jordan's most popular tourist attraction.

The cause of this nation's tourism troubles lies on the other side of the Jordan River, which serves as a portion of the border between Jordan and Israel.

The continuing conflict between Israelis and Palestinians, which flared up last fall, has had a severe impact on travel to Israel. But other Middle Eastern countries, particularly Jordan, also are being hurt by the troubles.

According to the Jordan Tourism Board, tourism arrivals from January through May this year are down 38.5% compared with the same period in 2000.

In contrast, in early 2000, Jordan experienced 20% to 25% more arrivals than during the same period in 1999.

What's behind the decline?

Marwan Khoury, vice chairman of the Jordan Tourism Board, said the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the reason fewer people are coming to Jordan this year, despite the fact the problems are in another country.

"At this stage, we have to stress safety," Khoury said. "Not one tourist has been hurt."

"We have peace with all our neighbors, but we're always punished somehow," he added. "We hope our neighbors would find other ways of communicating."

For Jordan, a slowdown in tourism has a noticeable effect on the country's economy. Tourism accounts for about $850 million of the nation's gross domestic product -- about 12.5%.

Yet even well-established destinations like Egypt have been affected by the turmoil in Israel.

Egypt attracted about 2 million visitors from January through April, up about 4.5% overall.

However, Omayma El Husseini, deputy director of the New York office of Egyptian Tourist Authority, said Egypt had expected an overall growth this year of about 8% to 10% compared with 2000. Business will have to pick up substantially in the latter part of the year for Egypt to reach those projections.

"We have been affected for sure, but not to be compared to other destinations," said El Husseini, who added that most of the missing visitors have been connected with groups that travel on joint programs between Egypt and Israel.

As a source market for Egypt, the U.S. is lagging, as the number of American visitors dropped about 2.5% from January to April 2001, compared with the same period in 2000. Egypt attracted a total of about 235,000 U.S. visitors in 2000.

El Husseini said the U.S. was the only major source market to show a decline in visitors.

She also echoed the popular theory that Americans are not well-versed in Middle Eastern geography, and consequently lump nearby nations into the Israeli conflict.

"The hardest part is educating the public about the geography of the area," said El Husseini. "It's a problem that we have always been suffering with -- the American market in particular. The people are educated about the culture, but not much about the geography."

Travel suppliers and tourism officials throughout the area said they hope the situation in Israel will have a peaceful resolution, and sooner rather than later. The consensus is that, once peace returns to Israel, the region's tourism industry will rapidly recover.

"Peace and tourism are intertwined," said El Husseini. "If you don't have peace, you don't have good tourism."

"If you go to a country, you want to feel safe, you want to see peace," she added. "Whenever peace is going on, tourism flourishes."

Holy Land's travel industry is hardest hit

TEL AVIV -- At the center of the violence, the Israeli travel industry has been hit the hardest.

According to statistics from the Israel Ministry of Tourism, the country had slightly less than 900,000 arrivals by air from January to April 2000.

During the same period this year, Israel received approximately 475,000 visitors by air, a drop of nearly 50% (The ministry measures only air arrivals -- another estimated 20% of visitors arrive by land or sea).

North Americans accounted for nearly 180,000 visitors from January to April 2000, a figure which plumetted to 110,000 during the same period this year.

In 2000, Israel had about 2.2 million visitors by air, 540,000 from North American markets, only slightly above the total of 2.1 million in 1999. Interestingly, North American arrivals were actually higher in 1999 than in 2000, with about 566,000.

The Israeli Ministry of Tourism has tried to counter the perceptions of Israel seen on newscasts and in newspapers throughout North America by pointing out that the troubled areas are, by and large, in Palestinian-controlled parts of the country.

"We can understand why [those perceptions] arise when people see CNN over here," said Itai Eiges, director general of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. "It is something we have to overcome, but it is a hard job to compete with the media."

Yet, what can tourism officials -- who are paid to attract people to their countries -- say about tragedies like the June 1 bombing in Tel Aviv that killed 21 people?

Ron Huldai, mayor of the coastal Israeli city, spoke the thoughts of many when he said, "This just proves that the whole country is the front line."

But the cease-fire efforts which grew out of the bombing may represent some positive steps.

"We hope and believe this was a turning point," said Eiges. "In a month or so, we might have a totally different situation."

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