Tourism in Israel

Ehud Barak has the hardest job in Israel these days, but Itai Eiges’ is no walk in the park, either. As director general of the ministry of tourism, Eiges is in charge of promoting an industry that has been crippled by the recent conflict. Tour operators are reporting a 50 percent cancellation rate, the U.S. State Department has instituted a travel warning on the Middle East, and Britain has levied one against Jerusalem. It is the worst drop-off in travel in decades.

For a country that relies heavily on tourist dollars, the impact has been immediate: massive layoffs of hospitality workers and millions of dollars in lost revenue.

But Israel, fighting its conflict with the Palestinians on the military, diplomatic and media fronts, is also waging a tourism war.

Eiges, along with government spokesman Nachman Shai, held an international press briefing by telephone with Jewish newspapers around the world on Oct. 29.

“We are here to try to convince you to come to Israel,” said Eiges. “This is a time to be together,” said Shai, “to share what we are going through.”

What potential tourists need to know, said Eiges, is that the battles they see raging on CNN are not the every day reality. “The people of Israel are leading normal lives,” he said. “My wife and daughters are having doughnuts in the mall right now.” A group of 1,500 Japanese tourists have been enjoying the country without incident, said Eiges. Jewish leadership groups have visited the Western Wall and East and West Jerusalem and report feeling very safe. At a Feast of the Tabernacles in Jerusalem, 5,000 Christian pilgrims attended ceremonies at the Christian Embassy in Jerusalem. Only 7 percent canceled. “There are groups of pilgrims visiting Nazareth, Jerusalem and other places,” said Eiges.

What about Bethlehem, site of some fierce rioting? “There are groups of pilgrims visiting Nazareth, Jerusalem and other places,” Euges repeated obliquely.

The irony here is that until a few weeks ago, these were boom times in Israel travel. After suffering a sharp decline from 1996-1999 following bus bombings, the industry rebounded and set new records. There were 2.5 million visitors in 1999, with 3.1 million expected this year.

Christian pilgrims have always made up the hardiest and most dependable lot of Holy Land travelers. And hotels by the Dead Sea and in Eilat are at capacity with the annual pilgrimage of Northern Europeans seeking sunburns and cold drinks. But otherwise the number for 2000 is stuck at 2.7 million – a new record, to be sure – with no major upward movement expected. The trick is pulling in the others, especially American Jewish tourists and conference attendees.

Eiges said the large conferences have postponed, rather than canceled, their arrangements. But other tourists are a different problem.

One solution, he said, is to get foreign governments to discontinue their travel warnings on the country. Israel is working with the State Department to review its warning, which it claims is unjustified. “I think Manhattan is much more dangerous than Israel,” said Shai.

Public relations and outreach are the other weapons Eiges has. “Mega-missions” of concerned American and European Jews are in process and more are being planned, along with phone calls to media here and abroad. There are reports from England that some airlines are offering reduced fares on Israel flights, though Eiges didn’t confirm whether Intifada II will at least be good for bargain hunters.

The question people naturally want answered before purchasing any ticket: “Is it safe?” “I don’t think I can tell you when things are going to go back to normal,” said Eiges. “But they will.”

Shai, who has been a frequent, and refreshingly direct, presence on CNN these days, put it bluntly. “What I say to [tourists] is what I say to my wife and kids: they should be careful. And in the time being, nothing has happened.”