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Campaign emphasizes travel to Israel is safe

By ERIC FINGERHUT
The Washington Jewish Week
December 18, 2000

ROCKVILLE, Md.—"You from the States?" asks the man putting tefillin on visitors at the Western Wall in Jerusalem last week. When the response is affirmative, he replies, "You weren't scared to come?"

Many Americans, and others from around the world, have been "too scared to come" to Israel since the outbreak of Palestinian violence in late September. As a result, the Jewish state, which was on pace for the best year of tourism in its history, is struggling with the downturn in one of its most important industries.

The Old City seemed quiet and empty last week. One of the city's top hotels and probably its most famous, the King David, was deserted, with only a handful of people besides visiting journalists in the dining room for breakfast.

Tourism, said the owner of the King David's drugstore, who identified herself as Rachel, is "just dead."

Ninety percent of business, she said, has been journalists asking about the lack of business.

Fifteen thousand tourism industry workers lost their jobs in the past three months, according to Tourism Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, and a few hotels had to close their doors. He estimated losses so far at approximately 1 million NIS (about $250 million) and the drop in tourists at about 40 percent.

The number of passengers on El Al Airlines decreased by 30 percent in November and December, according to the company's spokesperson, Nachum Klieman. On a tour of the El Al facilities in Tel Aviv, he pointed out, "Too many planes are on the ground."

The airline is adapting to the reduction in passengers by sending employees on vacation and consolidating or altering flights, he explained. For example, smaller aircraft might be used for smaller loads, or two half-sold flights combined into one full flight. On average, about two to three of the 23 to 24 weekly El Al flights from the New York area have been canceled in recent months, Klieman said.

The only bright spot is that all business class seats on El Al are full "If businesses are not coming here, Israeli businesses must go there," he said.

Even Eilat, the resort town at the country's southern tip and far away from any violence, is feeling the pain.

Though hotels in Eilat are much livelier and filled with considerably more people than those in Jerusalem, Michal Levy, advertising and public relations manager at Coral World, said the marine park has seen a 62 percent reduction from the same month last year in the number of foreign tourists, as well as a 20 percent drop in Israeli tourists.

Lipkin-Shahak and others say the U.S. State Department's travel advisory on Israel was a huge blow to the Israeli tourism industry, and "the way we are covered by CNN" also frightens Americans away from the area.

But Israelis throughout the tourism industry are trying to change the situation. They emphasize that now is the best time for American Jews to come to Israel. "Go back and tell your friends what you have seen here," said Lipkin-Shahak. "Now is a difficult time, and we need our friends to be with us."

Haifa Mayor Amram Nitzna echoed that sentiment. "Jews come here not just as general tourists, [but with] pride," he said. They "have to come over when Israel is going through a situation. [As Jews, we must be] together in good times and bad times."

Noting he would advise tourists to avoid such areas as Bethlehem, the site of some violence, Lipkin-Shahak said, "The rest of Israel, except the West Bank and Gaza, is as safe as in the past."

To spread that message, the tourism ministry has just approved a new $750,000 advertising campaign for Jewish newspapers, travel industry publications and other places. With the slogan "The Israel You Don't See on the Nightly News," the campaign features Americans explaining why they have come to visit Israel during the current crisis.

Rina Maor, director of tourism in the Eilat and Negev region, said Israel will be making an effort to convince American Jews that instead of going to Hawaii or the Caribbean on vacation this winter, they would get similar weather in Eilat and be supporting Israel in the process. Not only that, but the flight to Israel from the East Coast is shorter than the flight to Hawaii.

In addition, Lipkin-Shahak said, there has been an effort to "encourage Israelis to travel more inside Israel instead of taking their holidays outside [the country]."

While he said the response has been "very warm, it cannot cover the losses," he said.

One bright spot in the Israeli tourism picture is that the first nine months of the year were extremely successful. "Despite the last three months, we will still have a record year," said Tsion Ben David, director of Israel tourism for North America. Before October, tourism was up 27 percent, and Ben David expects 2.8 million tourists by year's end, 200,000 more than the previous record set in 1999.

Still, Levy is "very concerned" about January, when her park will be comparing those large numbers of early 2000 to what could be extremely low 2001 tourism.



So Israelis will work to convince American Jews that there is no reason to avoid the country. "Israelis are very tough," said Benjamin Ninnayi, branch director of the Tourism Ministry's

hosting operations division. "We would like if Americans sympathize with us, see the actual reality [that] there's nothing to be afraid of ... . Israel is open for business." Eric Fingerhut visited Israel last week as a guest of the Israel Ministry of Tourism.

© The Washington Jewish Week, 2000. May not be reproduced without written permission
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