May 4, 2006
The Road to Recovery
Highway 443 and Israel are ready to take you places
When you think of victims of Middle East unrest, tour guides are probably not the first to come to mind. But Amir Orly knows of two who committed suicide in the last couple years. Others have left the country or taken odd jobs -- anything to make ends meet.
Business for tour guides in Israel collapsed in 2000, amid the violence of the second intifada, which between 2000 and 2005 took the lives of about 1,000 Israelis and more than 3,000 Palestinians. About 50 foreign citizens also died, but mostly, they have just stayed away.
"It was at least a 90 percent drop-off of tourists," Orly said. "There was no hope. A friend of one of my friends became a gardener. Some turned to become teachers. Each person found his own way, but a lot went unemployed. People were going all directions."
As our van of visiting American journalists hurtled down Highway 443 between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, I wondered: Did the skittish tourists more or less have it right? If people are going to be shooting at you or trying to blow you up, what's so bad about diverting to the Magic Kingdom instead -- at least until the bombers get inside Tomorrowland, too?
Orly, a fit, handsome man in his 50s, was better off than many. The Ministry of Tourism's favorite son, he often gets called when VIPs need care -- including the Dalai Lama and William Shatner -- he's that good. Even so, he said, "there were many months where I would not work even once."
He took advantage of being suddenly "rich with time," as he put it, teaching and pursuing his doctorate (on the sanctification of Jerusalem) -- and relying on his wife's salary to get the family through.
Any downturn of visitors matters deeply for Israel, because tourism is the nation's second leading industry behind high-tech. A healthy economy and anything less than double-digit unemployment is indefinitely out of reach without healthy tourism. Which is why the Ministry of Tourism provided Orly's services recently to this group of journalists from U.S. Jewish newspapers visiting Israel for a week. The government wants the word spread that Israel is back -- once again ready for its close-up. After all, they insist, there's still lots to see, and Israel needs your tourist dollars. (That last point, of course, is the tribal appeal to duty and solidarity.)
Tel Aviv's Nachalat Binyamin is bustling, but tourism officials insist there's room for many more tourists. Photo by Howard Blume
But is it safe?
Safe enough, Orly said.
His answer is inevitably embedded in politics, pragmatism and positive thinking -- three essential themes of our whirlwind tour. Potential tourists will ultimately address the security question for themselves. But for Israelis, Orly's reply is almost preordained, because he and other Israelis are not going anywhere. They must press onward.
The safety question arose early on as our van traversed Highway 443, which looks for all the world like a Los Angeles freeway, except for road signs in Hebrew and Arabic as well as English. Roads like this, in a part of the world still emerging into modern times, testify to Israeli industriousness and modernity. But for a couple of years, 443 was darn-near empty at night, Orly said, because it passes close to Palestinian towns, through the heart of, in his words, what "most of the world refers to as the occupied West Bank." During the troubles, anything with an Israeli license plate was fodder for target practice. Barbed fencing borders the highway and, when you get near Arab communities, there'll be concrete barriers or other obstructions to blur sight lines.
For now, nearly all the roadway shooting has stopped. By late 2005, some militant groups had called a cease-fire, Yasser Arafat was dead, Ariel Sharon was pulling out of Gaza and the security barrier was rising. And Israeli intelligence agents had picked off terrorist leaders one by one, sending many of the survivors into hiding. Which brought the travel agents out of hiding.
And Highway 443 is good again.
The year 2000, the millennium, was supposed to be the start of something big. Christians, including Pope John Paul II himself, were especially focused on the Holy Land, eager to make the pilgrimage. The projection for visitors was more than 3 million. The total still hit a record 2.7 million, but everything tailed off with the outbreak of violence late in the year. The next year, 2001, which included the terrorist attack in New York City, was total disaster, with visitors dropping to 843,000.
The shockwave jolted the entire Israeli economy. Business was down by 80 percent, said Chen Michaeli, vice president of development for Dan Hotels during a conversation in the lounge at the high-end Dan Panorama Hotel in Tel Aviv.
Near the Dead Sea, 65 percent of income for the Ein Gedi kibbutz comes from foreigners, who plunk down currency for tours, Dead Sea cosmetics and spa treatments. During good times, there's work to go around, with a third of jobs going to people who don't even belong to the collective.
Conventions plummeted from 120 a year to just about none. Now it's about 20 or 30 events annually, tourism officials said.
Even Orly the tour guide reluctantly abandoned his house south of Jerusalem. "We live near the West Bank," he said, "and they shot at our place. It became dangerous, especially when they tried to blow up the children's school bus three times in one week."
Orly declines to use the word "intifada" in relation to the second intifada, because, he said, the word is too loaded, meaning something like "shaking up the oppression." He prefers the term meoraot (the events).
Tour guide Amir Orly explains what's just under the surface -- at the Roman-era harbor of Caesaria and with Israel's rebounding tourism. Photo by Howard Blume
By any name, the events have been costly. The government calculates that every 100,000 tourists generate $200 million and 4,000 jobs.
During the violence, Israel appealed to its core market of Jews to come over anyway, frequently through the U.S. federation system and the Council of Presidents of Jewish Organizations.
"Of course, when they came to Israel, they were afraid to walk out of their hotel," tourism official Haim Gutin said.
Gradually numbers began to rise -- to 1.9 million, a 27 percent increase compared with 2004. And now, with relative calm, Israeli officials once again see the potential: Only 35 percent of American Jews have been to Israel. The biggest under-tapped market, however, is Christians, especially American evangelicals, estimated at 50 million to 100 million in number.
"Jesus is the best seller," said Gutin, wryly. "If Jesus were to rise again, it would raise a lot of money."
If zealots weren't willing to shed blood over every inch of this territory, all Israel, surely, would be a prime tourist zone. Especially for a first-timer, it's like Disneyland or a movie set or some fantastic historical re-creation that you'd find in modern Las Vegas -- except it's all real, in a land that's hardly more than theme-park sized, about as large as New Jersey. Las Vegas has Caesars Palace; Israel has Caesarea, built in the time of a real Caesar, one of the wonders of the ancient world.
There are villages, goatherds, grapevines -- and mountainsides checkerboarded with fairytale stone walls in a setting of both transformation and continuity. In Tel Aviv, new skyscrapers tower over "old" architecturally valued Bauhaus apartments of 1930s. An hour away, in Jerusalem, 300 years old is new and 1,000 years back is almost new. And the whole lot is somehow efficiently connected by good roads and supplied with clean bathrooms and falafel stands, with luxury hotels ever within reach.
Not so distant troubles: A memorial sculpture in Tel Aviv outside the deserted Dolphinarium, site of a deadly bombing in 2001. Photo by Howard Blume
Some of these luxury hotels, even along the beachfront in Tel Aviv, have fallen into disrepair, with empty swimming pools and fountains and tiles falling off facings, revealing rusty rebar. Others are getting fixed up.
Israel's image is getting spruced up, too.
"Israel is not in, the way that Paris and London are in," said Arie Sommer, a New York-based tourism official. "There was a group that we hired to take a survey about the image of Israel in the eyes of Americans. People in the focus groups weren't told who was conducting the survey."
Among other things, the survey firm asked participants to imagine themselves approaching an Italian home and to visualize the scene.
"They say they see many children and a warm atmosphere, and children are playing," Sommer reported.
In the perceived Italian home, said Sommer, a "lady" opens the door and "everything is nice."
But when participants tried the same exercise, substituting an Israeli home, a different picture emerged. A man opens the door. There are no children in sight. And what did they see outside?
"Walls," came the answer.
And were people happy in this house?
The response was: "No, they are gloomy."
"This is the image of Israel," said Sommer emphatically. "They don't know anything about Israel."
Over the last few months, Israel has launched a TV ad campaign. In one, Sommer explained, "a beautiful sexy lady is coming out of the water. This is good for London. This is not going to work in the United States. We know it."
For the United States, the ads show unidentified images of beauty, joy and families. Then 20 seconds into a 30-second ad, a narrator intones: "Israel: Who knew?"
Tourism officials also have worked to break an air travel logjam, fighting to undo the near-monopoly of El Al. Earlier this year, Israir became the nation's second designated international carrier, offering discounted fares and an informal Southwest Airlines-style flavor of service. And Delta resumed service to Israel in late March, adding 100,000 seats annually. In January, at an American-themed restaurant in Tel Aviv, visiting journalists were feted at one table; nearby, a delegation from Delta was getting fed and watered as part of its own tour.
As for the evangelicals, about a year ago, government officials approached televangelist Pat Robertson about organizing investors and the faithful to get involved in building an evangelical center at the shore of the Sea of Galilee. Israeli officials pulled back, for a time, after Robertson suggested that the stroke suffered by Prime Minister Sharon was God's punishment for yielding territory to the Palestinians. But Robertson apologized, and business is business.
Of course, everything could fall apart again. Late in our stay, a suicide bomber attacked a Tel Aviv falafel stand near the old bus station, killing only himself. Another bomber attacked the same restaurant in April, killing nine. One of the hotels that hosted the visiting journalists was the elegant Dan Panorama, whose panoramic view not only includes the beach and postcard-perfect Jaffa, but also the hulking ruins of the Dolphinarium disco, where a suicide bomber took 21 lives and injured 120 in June 2001.
Up the road at Mike's Place, owner Dave Beck reported that business was good and "constantly improving." That very evening, Beck was part of an informal meeting about how to raise more funds for the victims of a 2003 attack on his restaurant. That incident killed three and wounded 50. Beck conceded that he's concerned about the loss of Sharon's leadership and about the rise of Hamas. At the same time, he said, "we're not going to let the terror attacks stop us."
A few tables away, 21-year-old insurance agent Jacob Gutman was sold: "Israel is a great place to visit. I think the people here live more, rather than just existing."
And Orly has returned to the home, south of Jerusalem, that he'd vacated during the period of violence. He's also taking the shortcut along Highway 443 again and again.
"Do we have to drive through the West Bank to get to Tel Aviv?" I asked him at one point.
"We don't have to," he replied. "We choose to."