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Drop in Tourism to Jewish Sites Prompts Some Concern in Prague

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Czech Jewish leaders are hoping for a turnaround after a huge decline in Israeli tourism to the country in 2002.

In the nine months ended September, there was a 38 percent drop in the number of Israeli tourists compared with the same period in 2001, according to the Czech statistical office.

About 100,000 Israelis are forecast to visit the country by the end of the year. This is half the number that came last year, according to the office.

Tourism experts say the decline, which began after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, was caused by a number of factors, including the tense political situation in the Middle East and flooding in August that damaged many of Jewish Prague’s most important historical sites.

Recent claims in the Israeli media, based on intelligence sources, that Prague could be a target for a terrorist attack have done nothing to help the situation, according to the Prague-based firm Mag Consulting, which monitors official statistics.

After those claims were published, Israeli officials, members of the Prague Jewish community and Czech authorities all agreed that there was no indication that an attack was imminent.

But the report may well cause a further decline in tourism, and not only among Israelis.

“The threat of a terrorist attack on Israeli tourists in the Czech Republic may result in a lower number of foreign tourists coming to the country in the short term, even if it turns out to be a rumor,” said Mag Consulting director Jaromir Beranek.

This is bad news for Prague’s Jewish community, which relies heavily on income from tourists to maintain its social welfare programs.

The community is still reeling from the August floods, which led to a $250,000 loss in tourist income.

“The falling number of tourists is a big problem, but not a tragedy,” said the chairman of the Prague Jewish community, Tomas Jelinek. “We had quite an easy life in the second half of the 1990s, when Prague was one of the most popular tourist destinations in Europe. I see today as the end of an extremely good period.”

Jelinek stressed that income from tourism is not the most important issue.

“Israeli tourists don’t just come to see the Jewish Museum. Some come and sing in Jewish synagogues or hold a concert. It brings us into contact with other Jewish groups.

“We would like to maintain the Jewish exchange but it very much depends on the willingness of people abroad to travel,” he said.

The Jewish community has sought to reassure potential tourists from Israel that it is doing everything it can to make Prague as safe as possible.

Jelinek said the community had been working “in very close cooperation” since the spring with the country’s National Security Council to improve security arrangements in Jewish Prague.

Jelinek remains hopeful that the situation is only temporary.

“Jewish Prague will remain an important place for Jewish tourists in the future. There are few places that can compete in terms of history and accessibility.

“Tourists will come back, perhaps not in such shining numbers as the late 1990s, but their numbers will go back up,” he said.

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