Mideast industry officials expect peace will spark a rise in tourism

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NEW YORK -- The news that Israel and Syria are resuming diplomatic talks at the highest levels in Washington raises hopes in the travel industry for a peace agreement between the two countries.

Peace, accompanied by a sense of regional security, has been the major factor guiding the tourism fortunes of Middle Eastern countries. Should negotiations succeed in ending the technical state of war between Syria and Israel, industry leaders believe tourism could substantially increase demand for travel throughout the region.

Observers point to the 1979 peace accords between Israel and Egypt that sparked a surge in U.S. visitors to both countries, as well as to a 1994 treaty between Jordan and Israel that spurred the growth of travel programs to both sides of the Jordan River -- and even upped the number of travelers to neighboring Syria.

General Tours has offered an all-Syria itinerary for most of the last decade and, according to president Robert Drumm, "Our bookings for Syria improve year by year, and the destination now provides a steady stream of passengers.

"A peaceful rapprochement between Syria and Israel would boost tourism to Syria, a country with an incredible inventory of ancient and cultural attractions."

Drumm believes any Syria-Israel agreement would pave the way for a similar accommodation between Israel and Lebanon, and in 2000, General Tours is offering a stand-alone, six-night visit to Lebanon, which can be linked to a larger Grand Capitals circuit, overland to Damascus, Amman and Jerusalem.

The Middle East as a whole, with more open cross-border traffic, is seen as a major destination for the next few decades by Isram World of Travel's vice president of marketing, Eileen Lowe Hart, in New York.

"We're looking at a [backlog] of desire on the part of consumers to see the entire area, as well as individual countries," said the Isram executive.

When Isram offered a Tour of the Future five years ago that would include Syria and Lebanon with Egypt, Israel and Jordan, nearly 80 people sent in the required $1 deposit, she said.

Although travel among the countries is possible now on a limited basis, she predicted that an overland tour of the area would be a hot item as soon as regional peace is official.

Ronen Paldi, president of Portland, Ore.-based Ya'lla Tours USA, has similar thoughts, but added a futurist prediction. "I think we will see a trend like we saw in the 1920s and '30s," he said. "From Europe, people used to sail to Beirut [Lebanon], take a train or bus overland [through what is now Syria and Jordan] and sail back from Jaffa [Israel] or Egypt." With peace in the area, Paldi said, "the circle will be possible again and it will be very popular."

Further, he expects travel to Israel "to be very strong" in the future because of the growing interest in monotheism, which is based on events in the Holy Land.

Eli Sidawi, president of Sunny Land Tours, has long been an advocate of regional Middle East itineraries. He looks for a working accommodation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority and an accommodation between Israel and Syria.

Sidawi said he has been preparing for such a moment for two decades, always leaving the door open with packages to Syria and Jordan, Israel and Egypt, as well as his native Lebanon, which he described as "ripe for new discovery."

He also sees the possibilities for an overland circuit tour of the whole region. That, however, would require new tourist accords, such as the easing of rules governing visas and permits for buses to travel between countries without changing drivers and vehicles at each border.

According to the Sunny Land chief, celebrations for 2000 have provided a strong launch for the new era with record numbers of groups headed for the Middle East, mostly Christian and Orthodox church groups heading for the Holy Land, Syria and Lebanon.

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