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More Tourists Are Coming to Israel, but the Numbers Are Still Under Par

August 29, 2003
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A man lies on the ground in front of this no-frills guest house in Jerusalem as three young women rush toward him.

Reaching into her large red bags, one pulls out a brace and snaps it on the young man’s neck. Another pulls out a strap and ties his feet together, while the third pulls out bandages and wraps them around the man’s arms.

The young Magen David Adom volunteers have made it to graduation day.

These graduates of the Israeli EMT course are among the thousands of Diaspora Jews coming to Israel this summer on youth and tour programs.

Despite nearly three years of intermittent terrorism, the number of tourists coming to Israel is again on the rise.

“The world situation has become less safe,” said Michael Freeman, director in Israel of the Federation of Zionist Youth, which, along with Young Judaea, sponsored the EMT course. “Why not come to Israel? It’s no more or less dangerous than anywhere else in the world these days — New York, Bali, Russia.”

The EMT program has more participants this summer than ever, Freeman says. He attributes the increase to the new perception of Israel as comparatively safer, and to the program’s reputation for safety and security.

“Parents have come to trust our name,” he said.

The number of visitors in Zionist youth tourist groups to Israel has almost rebounded to figures from the year 2000, according to Zvi Levran, director of Jewish Experience of Israel.

But the number of other tourists is still down, however.

“Many organizations that appeal to unaffiliated or less affiliated populations — those not as committed to Israel — have not gotten back to their earlier numbers,” Levran said.

In general, however, the recent trend has been an increase in tourism to Israel.

“We’re starting to see pent-up interest — Jews and Christians who have wanted to come to Israel but have not done so because of the situation,” said Ari Marom, director of North American operations at Israel’s Tourism Ministry.

Before the Aug. 19 Jerusalem bus bombing, the situation had become relatively stable, and anxiety about the Gulf War had passed, he said.

“The Jerusalem bombing will begin to impact Israel tourism this fall,” he predicted.

Meanwhile, countries around the world have sent a higher number of tourists to Israel this year than last.

“There is a nice percentage of increase,” Marom said. “But you have to keep it in proportion.”

In 2000, 3.2 million tourists visited the Jewish state. In 2002, there were fewer than 900,000.

This summer, Levran said, “there was a 100 percent increase in Israel-experience programs.”

That’s both good news and bad news. The good news is the increase. The bad news is that the drop in tourism from 2000 to 2002 was so severe that even a 100 percent increase this year hasn’t brought tourism back to its pre-intifada levels.

At its nadir since the start of the Palestinian intifada in September 2000, the number of youths visiting Israel was down 92 percent, meaning that only 800 youngsters came instead of 10,000.

That figure of 800 “has been more than doubled this year,” Levran said, “but still it’s only 2,000 in comparison to 10,000.”

A number of additional factors have kept tourists away, including the global economic recession, anti-Israel boycotts in Europe and fear of travel after Sept. 11.

Travel from East Asia and Latin America is way down from 2000, partly because of changed airline routing, according to Marom.

“From South America, you have to change flights in Europe or the USA, and that in itself is a main reason for not coming,” Marom said.

Numerous European airlines either reduced or eliminated flights to Israel, making it more difficult for potential tourists to get here.

European Christian groups that came during the past three years often made their presence known publicly as a way of showing solidarity with the Jewish state.

In fact, when violence heats up Christian tourists from the United States often are slower to cancel their plans than Jewish tourists, but afterward the Christians “are much harder to get back,” Marom noted.

Typically, Jews make up less than 50 percent of tourists to Israel. In 2002, however, Jews well exceeded the 50 percent mark.

Those who came to Israel this summer included tourists on organized tours, people visiting family in Israel and those coming to explore on their own. Jews made up the majority of the latter two groups.

Some tour groups, like those that work in conjunction with the Jewish Agency for Israel, are veritable security experts, Levran and Freeman said.

At 8 a.m. and 4 p.m. each day, leaders of Jewish Agency-affiliated programs are in touch with a “situation room” that is connected to police and army surveillance units.

Groups are advised on where it’s safe and unsafe to travel on any given day. All groups are accompanied by a guard on outings.

With the use of a global-positioning devices, parents can know where their children are at any given moment — something that’s not possible “when kids are in their own city in the USA,” Levran pointed out.

Youths on the Magen David Adom volunteer program said they were not afraid, even as they prepared to accompany paramedics on calls that could take them into scenes of bloodshed.

“I feel that as a Jew, it’s necessary to contribute to the country,” said Adam Benjamin — who, with his friend Rafael Broch, arranged for 18 others youngsters from England to participate in the MDA program. “If that means facing things that Israelis have to face on a daily basis, why should I not?”

Non-Jewish friends back home, however, often have trouble understanding the reasons for visiting Israel these days.

“My non-Jewish friends in England think I’m mad coming here,” Lisa Shama said.

Just days ago, she watched her instructors on television as they attended to victims of a suicide bombing. Later that night she heard a firsthand account of what had happened.

“I think what English people don’t understand is that despite the bombs, normal life still carries on,” Tal Heymann said.

Broch agreed.

“You can either get on with your life just as Israelis do, or sink back into the Galut,” he said, referring to the Diaspora. “That’s not the kind of Jew I want to be.”

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