JERUSALEM (Oct. 8)
The Persian Gulf crisis has dealt Israel’s tourist industry a crippling blow.
Hotels are without bookings as more charter flights and package tours are canceled daily.
The distribution of gas masks to the public, which began over the weekend, was hardly an incentive to potential visitors from abroad. It was a necessary precaution in view of Saddam Hussein’s repeated threats to attack Israel with chemical weapons.
But the news had a negative impact, despite assurances by the Tourism Ministry that there were plenty of gas masks available for tourists “in case of emergency.”
A U.S. State Department advisory warning American tourists that Israel is handing out gas masks to its population seemed only to add to the jitters.
The travel advisory, issued Friday in Washington, was directed at all travelers to the Middle East, South Asia and North Africa. It said Israel, “like other countries in the region,” is affected by “unstable conditions and the possibility of hostile action” from Iraq.
While it noted that the Israeli government had stressed that distribution of the masks does not constitute the “beginning of a state of emergency,” it also said, “Americans should take this situation into account in planning to visit Israel.”
Israel depends on Europe as much as on the United States for tourism. Many charter flights from Germany, Holland, Scandinavia and Britain were canceled last week despite a high cancellation penalty fee.
DUTCH FLIGHTS DISCONTINUED
Typical was the Dutch company Transavia, which normally operates three charter flights a week from Amsterdam to Israel — two to Eilat and one to Tel Aviv.
They will be discontinued as of Nov. I due to cancellations and lack of new bookings, the company announced Friday.
It is also canceling its weekly flights to Egypt.
Israeli hotels were well patronized over the High Holidays, mostly by Israelis.
But the occupancy rate is expected to drop to 30 percent next weekend, after Simchat Torah.
The Tourism Ministry is trying to stem the receding tide of visitors. It has instructed Israel Government Tourist Offices around the world to stress that there is no emergency situation in the country and that life is proceeding normally.
“We understand that the situation at your end is not easy, and that it is difficult to get across positive messages at this hour,” the ministry has told its representatives abroad.
“But the atmosphere here is totally calm,” the message added. Nevertheless, tourism experts concede that this season is “lost.”
The irony is that 1990 started out to be a record year for tourist revenues. About 660,000 foreign visitors arrived during the first five months, a 10 percent increase over the same period in 1987 before the intifada began.
Tourism officials are hopeful that the Gulf crisis will be over by next year.
(JTA correspondents Henrietta Boas in Amsterdam and David Friedman in Washington contributed to this report.)