Down but Not Out.(Tourism in Isreal)
Israel has experienced dips in tourism before but has come back strong every time
While the unrest in Israel continues to have an unsettling impact on travel, the country's tourism officials, and U.S. tour operators and travel agents repeatedly point out that no tourists have been harmed, and they remain optimistic that Israeli-Palestinian differences in the one-of-a-kind destination will improve soon.
Encouraging signs include a recent pledge by Israeli and Palestinian tourism ministers to promote regional tourism; the addition of new aircraft by El Al Israel Airlines, the country's national carrier; and the reintroduction of New York-Tel Aviv scheduled service by Delta Airlines planned for this June.
The Israel Ministry of Tourism is taking measures to correct misperceptions among potential and actual travelers, and stabilize Israel's travel industry, says Tsion Ben-David, director-North America for the ministry in Jerusalem.
With the task of attracting first-timers (critical since 48 percent of Americans become repeat visitors) more daunting than ever, Ben-David says key points in the ministry's efforts include sponsoring complimentary "impression tours" for group-leading clergy, a come-see-for-yourself effort that began in January and is resulting in new bookings. Another strategy is offering deep discounts to tour operators. "We're doing all we can, because we believe we have the best tourism product and the best destination," says Ben-David.
On other fronts, the ministry is still conducting the same number of workshops for U.S. travel agents. Says Ben-David: "It is difficult to say how long it will take for the situation to turn around, but it's beginning to happen. We are very optimistic; our anthem is always hope."
Although bookings are down, tour groups from the U.S. continue to make the trip. "Even with the slowdown we kept 60 percent of our bookings," notes Oren Drori, director of market segments for the Israel Ministry of Tourism.
Katrin Nakar, spokeswoman for the Nof Ginosar hotel in the Sea of Galilee region, says there are signs of a pickup in business. "At no time has the situation with regard to the number of tourists coming to Israel been desperate," she says. "They are coming--just not as many--and now we are finally seeing more groups and good advance bookings."
Sandy Scott, senior travel consultant for Silver Valley Travel in Kellog, Idaho, has traveled to Israel in good times and bad, and she says her recent escorted program through Ya'lla Tours "was as smooth as glass." Although the group of 18 Christians--all first-time visitors to Israel--was "a harder sell and smaller than usual," Scott says her clients "were thrilled to be in the Holy Land, and they discovered quickly that it was absolutely safe."
To stimulate business, Ya'lla Tours has frozen rates until the end of February 2002, and it is conducting a program for travel agents to emphasize that Israel is safe, says Ronen Paldi, the company's president and owner." are booking more Christian groups for after November and beyond," he says.
Meanwhile, most of Israel's major tourism sites, including those along the Mediterranean coast, and in the Galilee region and Jerusalem, are open and accessible. Even Bethlehem, now under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, may be visited, usually upon the request and issuance of a travel permit. Among Israel's newest tourist attractions is Nazareth Village in Nazareth. The fascinating site recreates life as it was lived during Jesus' time, with biblical plants, people in costume and a village that will eventually have 20 buildings. In the port city of Haifa are the new Bahai Gardens, a network of 19 intricately planted, meticulously landscaped terraces that stretch two-thirds of a mile up Mount Carmel. By the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a sparkling addition to the Yigal Allon Museum houses a 2,000-year-old boat discovered by two brothers from Kibbutz Ginosar in 1986.
(Editor's Note: The writer recently returned from a press trip sponsored by the Israel Government Tourist Office.)
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