Jewish State Woos Americans when Tour Operators Converge

All sector of Israel’s economy suffer when headlines abroad scream “Terror Attack” or “Violence Flares in Gaza,” but no quarter is affected more than the country’s tourism industry.

Although Israel’s peace treaties with Jordan and the Palestine Liberation Organization have definitely boosted tourism here — as a record 2.17 million visitors came to Israel in 1994 – local officials hope to attract at least 2.5 million tourists annually by the year 2000.

According to Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Orly Doron, promoting Israel in the United States “is a real priority for us.”

For this reason, she said, “the government recently launched a special marketing campaign in response to the spate of terrorist attacks earlier this year.”

Although reluctant to say so on the record, many tourism professionals consider American tourists unreliable.

“Americans, particularly American Jews, cancel their plans at the first sign of trouble,” said one travel agent, who spoke on condition of anonymity. “They’re the most frightened group of travelers I know of.”

Statistics appear to indicate that Americans are more wary of traveling to Israel than are their European counterparts. While visits by Europeans rose by 15 percent during the first four months of 1995, visits by Americans during the same period rose only 3 percent.

Determined to woo more Americans to Israel, particularly from the Christian sector, the Tourism Ministry is promoting its “Peace Tourism Year” with television commercials, poster give-aways and “Familiarization” junkets for travel writers, members of the clergy and travel professionals.

During one such recent junket, 20 of America’s top tour operators got a chance to see Israel firsthand.

And for the first time, Israel served as the venue for the United States Tour Operators Association’s annual “Out of the Country” meeting.

The meeting, which took place this month, attracted some of the largest tour operators in the United States.

Last year, the group’s 47 members sent more than 5 million Americans tourists abroad and generated billions of dollars for their host countries.

Welcomed as guests of the Ministry of Tourism, the participating tour operators and their spouses received a VIP welcomed from Tourism Ministry officials.

The visit was considered so important that Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin met privately with members of the the group’s executive committee.

In addition to sightseeing at Masada, the Dead Sea, Bethlehem and the Sea of Galilee, the delegates got a chance to visit such politically charged areas as the Golan Heights and eastern Jerusalem.

Most of the participants had never been to Israel before. They seemed impressed by the country’s tourism infrastructure, as well as by its people.

“I visited here once, 20 years ago,” said Nigel Osborne of Boston’s Insight Internal Tours during a cocktail reception at a Jerusalem hotel.

“Back then, people were tense. Today, I see fun, smiles. I was struck by their friendliness and hospitality, which was evident as soon as we got off the plane,” he said.

Although Osborne found the country “very safe,” he noted that many Americans don’t see Israel that way.

“One of our client’s biggest concerns is safety. The Israelis need to sponsor more trips for travel agents. That’s the best way to get the message across,” he said.

Mary Stachnik, of Mayflower Tours in Chicago, was also impressed by the improved security situation.

“I feel perfectly safe here. It annoys me that Americans are so concerned about coming here,” she said.

Since visiting Israel a year ago, Stachnik brought over her first tour group. She now holds regularly scheduled Israel travel nights, which are aimed at travel agents and selected clients.

Although many of the attendees express some initial fear, she said, “they see that we’ve been to Israel and survived.”

“They trust us, and that gives Israel a stamp of approval,” she added.

Bob Whitley, president of USTOA, agreed that the peace process can only enhance Israel’s image abroad.

“In the past, tours combining Israel and Egypt were a major sell. Now, tours to Israel and Jordan are doing well. The excitement is already showing. Eventually, we’ll combine the three countries, and it will be fabulous,” he said.

Although most of their impressions of Israeli life were positive, one delegate criticized Israelis’ impatience.

“Everyone in our group was standing in line, awaiting his or her turn, when a group of Israeli teens pushed through. That was rude behavior, and from what I could see, it wasn’t atypical,” the delegate said.

“Israelis are great people, warm and friendly for the most part, but a little more patience would go a long way.”

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