Suppliers keep the faith in a region of unrest

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NEW YORK -- Although suppliers don't expect to see a deluge of tourism to the Holy Land any time soon, they are doing their best to promote travel to Israel despite the ongoing turmoil in the region.

And while the State Department's warning earlier this month won't help on the tourism front, many in the trade are determined to get the word out that Israel's open for business.

One example of such efforts is Isram World of Travel here, which still published 300,000 copies of its Israel Book of Travel brochure, with prices available through March 2003.

Isram sent 35,000 passengers to Israel on packages in 2000. During those more peaceful times, Israel and the Middle East accounted for 48% of the company's business; so far this year, the region accounts for only 12% to 15%, according to Ady Gelber, president and chief executive officer.

The 80-page brochure's content was not influenced by recent events, Gelber said. "We have not changed any of our land offerings, only Bethlehem, which we now list as 'conditions permitting.'"

Isram is paying 17% commission on all its weekly escorted tours to Israel this year, he said.

Dan Hotels is a chain of a dozen properties in Israel, including the country's only two Leading Hotels of the World members, the King David Jerusalem and Dan Tel Aviv.

Gabi Mor, director of marketing and sales for North America at Israel Hotel Representatives here, which represents Dan Hotels, said all 12 hotels and their room inventories remain open.

To retain business in the present climate, the chain has been promoting discount rates and advertising in the Jewish media, with some success during the recent Passover holiday.

Because of the escalating violence in the weeks leading to Passover, Mor said, "there were many last-moment cancellations," resulting in a 15% decline in chain-wide business for the holiday from last year.

On the bright side, he said, Dan Hotels saw "an enormous increase in reservations to the Dan Eilat and Dan Panorama Eilat," resorts located on the Red Sea at Israel's southern tip between Egypt and Jordan.

The Dan Eilat saw a 10% increase in business from North America during Passover.

The Mediterranean resort properties Dan Accadia and Dan Caesarea, located nine and 32 miles north of Tel Aviv, respectively, also received "more reservations than usual" for the holiday, Mor said.

Jerusalem remains popular with visitors to Israel. Above, the city's Western Wall. In contrast to its hotels in Haifa, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, which ran at 55% to 60% occupancy during Passover week, he said, the Eilat properties ran at almost 90%; Caesarea and Acadia at about 70%. "Those are perceived as safer areas," Mor said.

Eilat is a popular destination with Israelis, Europeans and U.S. travelers alike, who sometimes visit as an extension to their tours of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the northern region, Mor said.

However, even during the ongoing crisis, he noted, the King David in Jerusalem and the Dan Tel Aviv are the strongest with the U.S. market. Rates at those flagship properties are 50% off what they would be in a peaceful year, Mor said.

Meanwhile, El Al, Israel's national carrier, is discounting fares to Israel by 33% through June 30, with roundtrip fares of $769 between Tel Aviv and New York (Kennedy or Newark).

Through June 20, the airline also introduced air-land packages including a choice of five nights' accommodations at the Prima, Dan Panorama or Crowne Plaza hotels, priced from $999, or seven days' car rental with unlimited mileage, priced from $899. Commission on El Al's land-air packages is 10%.

Ethnic clients and religious groups are staying the course.

"The ethnic market is a big part of our loyal customer base," said Michael Mayer, general manager, North America of El Al. "They fly rain or shine. The pilgrimage customers, also. We try to keep their loyalty as much as possible."

"There are people that still want to go to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv for six to seven nights," Mor said, "as well as the religious people and Americans who want to visit uncles and aunts in Israel."

The market most hurt by recent events, he added, are first-time visitors and those who take escorted tours offered by operators.

When peace returns, Mor said, the chain plans to expand its portfolio with another Dan Gardens-brand property in Ashkelon, near Tiberias and the Sea of Galilee.

He said he believed demand will return immediately upon a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

"It's like a roller coaster over the last 50 years. Declines in tourism to Israel see sharp drops, and then demand from all markets shoots up when the tide turns. We're just waiting for it."

"We remain strong and determined," Gelber said. "A lot of suppliers in Israel rely on us -- our marketing and distribution -- and we believe that agents should have Israel products for when [tourism] comes back."

State Dept. renews travel warning

NEW YORK -- The State Department renewed its December travel warning for Israel earlier this month, urging U.S. travelers to forego travel to the country.

"Americans are urged to review their personal security situations and to take those actions they deem appropriate to ensure their well-being, including consideration of departure from these areas [Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank]," the new warning states.

A spokesman for the Israel Ministry of Tourism said the warning is "no different than it was before. As far as we're concerned, people are still going and we're encouraging people to come."

However, some language in the new warning has changed. For example, regarding Jerusalem, the previous warning stated, "American citizens should limit travel to the Old City of Jerusalem to daylight hours, Saturday through Thursday."

The new warning says: "American citizens should be particularly careful in Jerusalem, where frequent terrorist acts have occurred and the potential for terrorist bombings remains high."

Ady Gelber, president and chief executive officer of Isram World of Travel here, asked in response to the renewed warning, "What else is new? We've been living with this for the past year and a half."

For more information, consult the State Department's Bureau of Consular Affairs Web site at www.travel.state.gov.

Suppliers selling packages to Israel

El Al Israel Airlines
Phone: (800) 223-6700
Web:www.elal.com

Israel Hotel Representatives (Dan Hotels)
Phone: (800) 223-7773
Web:www.danhotels.com

Isram World of Travel
Phone: (800) 223-7460
Web:www.isram.com

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