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Behind the Headlines: Tourism Officials Fear Violence Will Decrease Visitors to Israel

The clashes in late September between Israelis and Palestinians that left 75 dead from both sides and hundreds more wounded are threatening Israel’s tourism industry.

Although tourism professionals say it is too early to predict the extent of the damage, they acknowledge that the numbers of visitors are down and that new reservations are few and far between.

“Of course we are concerned,” says Ministry of Tourism spokeswoman Orly Doron, adding that if the political tensions continue, “we will have a very bad situation; we can smell it.

“It has been a disappointing year, and this just makes matters that much worse.”

According to everyone from tour guides and travel agents to hoteliers and tour- bus operators, 1996 has not lived up to expectations of increased tourism because of Jerusalem 3000 observances.

“I’ve seen a severe drop in the tourist industry this year,” says David Eisenstadt, a veteran Jerusalem-based tour guide.

“The problems started with the [Hamas] terrorist attacks in February and March, because that’s the time most people were deciding on where to go on their summer vacation.”

“I didn’t really feel the effects until August,” he adds, “but a lot of guides were complaining back in June. Business is down about 50 percent, and since this last round of violence, it’s dropped even further.”

Bernie Alpert, the head of Archeological Seminars, a Jerusalem-based company that serves tens of thousands of tourists each year, agrees that business is suffering.

“From what’s been broadcast on TV recently, you would think that Israel is a war zone, but that’s not the case,” says Alpert. “Unfortunately, the tourism industry here suffers every time there are problems in the Middle East, and they don’t even have to be in Israel.

“American Jews are always the first to cancel, but I’m worried that the Christians in Europe and the States might follow suit.”

Alpert estimates that his company’s trade has dropped about 10 percent this summer, far less than what he had anticipated.

“Given current events, we had expected a 40 percent drop, and if we hadn’t sought out other markets, we would have been in trouble,” he says.

As for the clashes in late September, “we do expect some losses in the near future, especially from private tours, where we’ve had cancellations. We’ve already lost a lot of our Israeli clientele because Tel Avivians are afraid to come to Jerusalem.”

According to the latest statistics, which cover the period from January through August, overall tourism is down 2 percent to 3 percent from the same period last year.

“This may not seem like much,” says Doron, “but you have to remember that we had very high expectations, expecially after the 29 percent increase we saw in January, followed by a 27 percent increase in February.

“We expected a 25 percent increase across the board, and everyone planned accordingly. Then came the suicide bombings, Operation Grapes of Wrath (Israel’s incursion in April into Lebanon). Even the American action in Iraq had its effect, and now this.”

Before this year’s violence, Doron says, the industry had sought to capitalize on Israel’s 1994 peace treaty with Jordan and on its improved ties at the time with the Palestinians and several Arab countries.

“We added more hotel rooms, tour agencies expanded, people expanded their offices, hired more people,” says Doron. “Tourism here is a $3.3 billion business, employing about 200,000 workers, so any decrease effects the entire economy.”

The Ministry of Tourism recently convened a special meeting with hoteliers, restauranteurs, representatives from travel agencies and the tour guides association to try to calm fears and to devise a strategy.

In response to the situation — government officials refuse to use the word “crisis” — the ministry is planning an aggressive campaign aimed at convincing tour operators in the United States and Europe that Israel continues to be a safe vacation destination.

Without the backing of the tour operators, 1997 could make 1996 look rosy in comparison.

“Although reservations for the year are down just 3 percent,” says Avi Rosenthal, director-general of the Israel Hotel Association, “we are very concerned about the future.”

“In the U.S. and Europe, our main markets, people plan their vacations several months ahead. There is a good chance that what happens now will affect New Year’s and spill over into Easter and Passover, even next summer.

“That being said, if the situation doesn’t get any worse, I think tourists will come back,” Rosenthal says.

Even if things do improve quickly, the country’s 1,500 active tour guides say it will be too little too late.

In a hastily convened meeting Monday, the Israel Tour Guide’s Association called on the government to award the guides — whose on-again, off-again work schedule often makes them ineligible for standard unemployment benefits — some $3 million in emergency assistance.

“In our industry, business is half of what it should be. One colleague told me he’s had almost no work for three months,” says Shmuel Bar-El, chairman of the guides association. “You can’t feed a family like that.”

“I know it sounds cliched, but tourism and peace really do go hand in hand,” says Doron, the ministry spokeswoman. “If the peace talks go well, we can expect good results very quickly. If that happens, I have a good feeling about the end of the year.

“If not, we’re in big trouble.”

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