Advances in the peace process are having a profound effect on Israel’s tourism industry.
Less than a month after the historic signing of the Israeli-Palestinian accord, local tourism officials are anticipating a flood of tourists and joint cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors.
While industry officials concede that regional cooperation will not be achieved overnight, some projects are in the pipeline.
Arkia Airlines, a local carrier serving routes within Israel and to Egypt, recently announced that it will begin flights to and from Amman, Jordan, as soon as political circumstances permit.
“We’ve already had a number of requests from American Jewish tourists who want to combine their trip to Israel with a visit to Jordan,” said Mark Feldman, owner of the Ziontours travel agency in Jerusalem. “We’ve keeping our fingers crossed.”
To encourage tourism, Tel Aviv-based Ziara Tours, owned by businessman Ya’acov Nimrodi, has begun to advertise pilgrimages to Jerusalem and Hebron in a popular Kuwaiti newspaper.
There also has been conjecture that El Al will gain permission to fly over certain Arab countries, perhaps as early as this winter, when the airline launches its new service to Bangkok, Thailand.
Many Israelis seem startled by the new developments. A month ago, visiting Jordan seemed as likely a possibility as flying to Mars. Tourism officials, however, have been planning for the benefits of peace for several years.
The government began to seriously consider the potential benefits four years ago and asked every ministry to draft a proposal for future cooperation between Israel and the Arab countries, said Mordechai Benari, director of public relations at the Ministry of Tourism.
“We imagined what would happen if peace were to come to the region, and came up with a number of suggestions,” said Benari.
“We realized that Israelis would want to visit neighboring Arab countries, and that Muslims and Christians living in those countries would want to visit their holy sites in Israel. We discussed tourism promotion, physical planning, and international cooperation between hoteliers, tour operators and airlines,” Benari said.
“At the time it was just a dream, but things are starting to move, at least in the area of international cooperation,” he added.
‘THINGS ARE STARTING TO MOVE’
Two examples: In November, the tourism ministers from Israel, Greece, Turkey and Egypt will meet in London to formally dedicate the Eastern Mediterranean Tourism Association. Its goal will be to promote and coordinate “package” deals that will encourage tourists to combine a visit to two or more countries in the eastern Mediterranean.
A more-ambitious meeting is set for January, when representatives from Israel, Jordan, Syria and the Palestinian areas are expected to attend a tourism workshop in Cairo within the framework of the multilateral peace negotiations.
“Given the new climate of cooperation and the potential for peace, we anticipate a rapid growth in tourism to the entire region,” said Benari. “In 1992, incoming tourism reached 1.8 million, and this year’s total could top the elusive 2 million mark. If the region stabilizes, the possibilities for tourism are limitless.”
Brimming with optimism, the Tourism Ministry recently sponsored a symposium titled “Israeli Tourism in the Era of peace.”
Dozens of industry professionals who attended the conference, from travel agents and tour guides to hotel managers and airline operators, praised the government’s recent moves toward peace and underscored how instability in the region has traditionally hurt the Israeli economy as a whole, and the tourism industry in particular.
OWN INTEREST TO COOPERATE WITH ARABS
“Tourism is an important part of the country’s economy, and it has been severely hampered by the image of the Middle East as an unsafe place,” said a Jerusalem tour guide. “It’s in our own best interest to cooperate with our Arab neighbors.”
People in the industry are banking on future breakthroughs on the political front. Even if a full peace remains elusive, they say, Israel’s dialogue with the PLO and the compromise on territory is sending a positive signal to the rest of the world.
“There are millions of people, especially Muslims, who have yearned to visit their holy sites here, but were unwilling to do so because of the ‘Palestinian Problem,'” said Benari. “We can attract pilgrims from Morocco and Tunisia, for example, if we do our homework.”
In addition to an upsurge in pilgrimages, industry insiders hope to attract business people to the country.
Toward that end, the Isrotel hotel chain is building a five-star hotel in Eilat that will feature a convention and business center, as well as leisure facilities.
“Business conferences are an underutilized market for us in Israel,” said Daniel Roger, Isrotel’s marketing manager. “Most hotels cater to vacationers here for a good time, not those who want to combine work with pleasure. Peace will enable us to attract international business people who want a good working environment plus leisure activities, and we planning accordingly.”
While tourism professionals are obviously most concerned with the immediate impact the peace process is having on local tourism, some are looking down the road a ways.
People here fantasize about attracting 5 million tourists a year, about open borders, about arranging a tour that includes Jerusalem and Mecca, the Muslim holy city in Saudi Arabia.
“Who knows?” said a Tourism Ministry official. “Within the not-too-distant future, there could be a train with the itinerary Damascus-Tel Aviv-Cairo. Passengers would buy a Midpass, a Middle Eastern version of the Eurail Pass, and travel freely through the region.
“Peace,” he said, “is full of possibilities.”
REMINDER: Because of the Jewish holiday of Simchat Torah and the American holiday of Columbus Day, the JTA Daily News Bulletin will not be published Friday, Oct. 8, or Monday, Oct. 11.