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Behind the Headlines; New Israeli Line for Reversing Tourism Slump is ‘come Anyway’

January 4, 1991
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What do Iraq, the warm weather in Europe and the U.S. economic slump have in common? They are all reasons why tourists have been staying away from Israel.

To combat the tourism decline, Israel’s Tourism Ministry has come up with a slogan to get U.S. Jews to visit: “Dafka Tourism,” meaning “Tourism Especially Now,” or “Tourism In Spite Of” current conditions in the Middle East.

Jews and Christians alike, both in the United States and Europe, are avoiding Israel in such droves that only 37,000 tourists arrived from abroad in November, compared with 90,000 in November 1989.

Until recently, tourism was Israel’s No. I source of foreign dollars, generating $1.8 billion in 1989. Tourism revenues for 1990 had been forecast at $2 billion, but that was before the Persian Gulf crisis began. When all the tallies from last year are complete, Israel will have lost as much as $750 million in potential revenue.

Tourism Minister Gideon Patt tried to put the best face on the situation recently, telling reporters here that there was really no crisis. “In business you have ups and downs,” he said. “A few bad months don’t destroy a business.”

Patt said December was an improvement over November’s drop. But he said, “I don’t know what’s going to happen in January,” when “everybody will be hiding themselves under the beds” in anticipation of war breaking out in the Gulf.

In all likelihood, Israeli hotel beds will for the most part be empty underneath as the Jan. 15 deadline for an Iraqi pullout from Kuwait nears.

EUROPEANS LESS AFRAID OF COMING

So 1991 will likely start on a sour note for Israel’s tourism industry and make it difficult to exceed or even reach the 1.4 million visitors who came to Israel in 1989.

Of those 1.4 million tourists, 869,500, or 62 percent, came from Europe, compared with the 195,000 tourists from the United States, representing about 14 percent of the total.

But the numbers are deceptive, since Europeans tend to spend much less per capita than tourists from the United States. Europeans mainly visit Israel to vacation in Eilat or make pilgrimages to Christian holy sites.

Europeans also tend to be much less afraid of Israel’s geographic proximity to Iraq than American tourists.

“Europeans are closer to situation. They understand better the geography and the history,” said Tourism Ministry spokesman Joseph Shoval.

“They know the Middle East. They know that Iran and Iraq and Israel are not in the same place, that there’s 1,400 kilometers in between.”

“From the United States looking at the Mediterranean, this all seems to be one on your (television) screen,” Shoval said.

European tourists are expected to come to Israel in near normal levels once the weather cools significantly in their respective countries. Israeli officials believe they will go ahead with their usual Caribbean-style vacations in Eilat, despite the political climate.

But Israeli officials have a gloomy outlook for a full resumption of American Jewish tourism as long as the Gulf crisis continues.

Visiting Israel should be a “matter of commitment,” Shoval said, urging Jews to “vote with your feet.”

He said U.S. Jews have received conflicting signals in recent months about the wisdom of visiting Israel, with a number of Jewish organizations canceling or postponing trips.

100 SOLIDARITY MISSIONS

After an outcry from Israeli officials, American Jewish groups reassessed the wisdom of staying away from Israel and booked some 100 “solidarity missions” to Israel from last November through February.

But a small portion of the participants on those missions will be first-time visitors to Israel, who normally make up the bulk of American Jewish tourism to Israel.

And it is unclear whether the mere fact that solidarity missions are going to Israel will be enough to persuade American Jews who have never visited that it is safe to do so.

When the Jewish Telegraphic Agency posed that question to Patt, he replied, “I’ll tell you directly: No.”

He also said that American Jews may decide to stay away from Israel for economic reasons.

“If the Gulf crisis continues, New York has a problem, Washington has a problem, London has a problem,” he said. “The price of oil will be $35, $40, $50 a barrel. There will be inflation. There will be unemployment.”

The U.S. economic downturn is likely to make it even more difficult for Christian pilgrims from the United States to take vacations in Israel. Already, they are coming in smaller numbers, though the drop has not been as steep as that for American Jewish tourism.

While U.S. Jews need to consider making “Dafka Tourism,” Christian pilgrims to Israel “use the slogan on the dollar, you know, ‘In God We Trust,’ ” Shoval quipped. “They don’t have so many complications. They are not so Jewish. They don’t ask so many questions.”

Patt said he could not name five Christian groups that canceled plans to come to Israel after Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait. And he said he could not name five Jewish groups that had went ahead with earlier plans to visit, despite the Gulf crisis.

CHRISTIANS COME, BUT SPEND LESS

While having Christians visit Israel is good publicity for Israel, they do not spend as much in Israel as Jews do, Shoval said. Jewish visitors “buy here, they are going to the galleries, and they feel like buying and doing.

“Greek pilgrims coming for one week here couldn’t care less,” Shoval said. A Greek pilgrim “is not coming to Israel — he is coming to his church. And if he gives a donation, it’s not to us — it’s to the church.”

In an effort to boost tourism, the Tourism Ministry and EI AI Israel Airlines brought 2,000 travel agents and 1,000 journalists to see Israel in 1990, from places as remote as South Korea.

The goal of that strategy is long-term: to have a tourism boom once the Gulf crisis is over.

In the meantime, officials are pushing “Dafka Tourism.”

“Yes, they do stab Jews here. And yet you can come. And yet we would like you to come. We need you,” Shoval said.

“Each one of the solidarity missions is moving this wheel a little bit. It’s a huge wheel, and what we need is to create this momentum.”

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