Tourism in Israel is being hammered. The Al-Aqsa uprising that began last fall has prompted a flood of trip postponements and cancellations, particularly by Americans who saw no need to put themselves or their children at risk when stones and bullets were flying in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
In the last three months of last year alone, tourist revenues slumped $700 million, and preliminary figures suggest the first quarter of 2001 will repeat the pattern of a 50- to 70-percent falloff. Hotel rooms, restaurants and shops all over Israel are empty, and some have been closed.
But the Israel Government Tourist Office insists the violence is limited to a handful of areas that tourists would almost never visit, that the impression of widespread turmoil was created by news reports that overplay the limited, very small-scale skirmishes that have become the pattern of Palestinian terror.
Seven other journalists and I recently toured Israel on a visit sponsored by the government in the hope we would provide a more accurate account for U.S. readers.
All of us had concluded long before we left that there is no special danger in visiting Israel, assuming normal precautions are observed regarding particular places -- roads to isolated West Bank settlements, for example.
By week's end, without pressure from Israeli government officials, we came away more convinced than ever that for anyone with a modicum of common sense and a normal curiosity about the land that is our shared history, this is a great time to go to Israel. Prices are down, accommodations are easily available, the best sites are not crowded, and night life is fun.
Just as important, the intifada is producing a tectonic shift in assumptions about the future of Israel and the Mideast generally, meaning a visitor has a chance to see history in the making.
And it's safe.
The present in Israel is always tied to the past. Nowhere is that more dramatically evident than in the newly excavated tunnel along the base of the Western Wall of the mount of the Second Temple.
To look at the massive stone blocks, some of them as much as 200 tons, that Herod's masons carved and set more than 2,000 years ago is to understand anew the power of belief.
Our guide, Roni Milo, a former Israel Defense Forces lieutenant colonel, pointed out that the excavations are underneath the present Jewish Quarter of Jerusalem's Old City; no similar work is taking place to explore the history underlying the Arab Quarter.
Within easy walking distance of the tunnel is the ambitious Tower of David museum, where every major period of Jerusalem's history is laid out with a clarity and simplicity that makes it an inviting doorway to more study.
The museum drew more than 350,000 visitors last year, when a monumental display of new glass artistry was mounted there. Now the show seems to get fewer than 200 daily visitors, so dawdling is easy. The museum relies on replicas rather than original artifacts, but the stories of the different periods of the city are told with a nice verve.
Farther north, Eran Goldwasser takes time from his wine-making to give a fascinating tour of Baron Edmund Rothschild's 1880s Carmel Mizrachi winery at Zichron Ya'akov, on the road to Haifa.
A restoration of the camp for illegal immigrants on the coast below Haifa was under-produced, but it still proved an emotional and intellectually engaging experience of a dramatic moment in Palestine under the British mandate. Independence Hall in Tel Aviv similarly cries out for a first-rate multimedia introduction and a budget adequate to spruce up the display areas.
After the Western Wall, Masada, the mountain fortress where, in 73 c.e., 967 Jews committed suicide rather than become Roman slaves, remains the most powerful site in Israel for Jews. On top of the mountain, the government has completed a massive reconstruction of the buildings and exhibits and installed a cable-car ride for those who don't want to make a 900-foot vertical ascent under their own power.
The intifada is providing a new gloss on the standard view of Masada as a lesson in Jewish courage. Now, Milo says, it stands for the proposition that Israel should never get itself into a dead-end situation, a place from which there is no way out.
Sense of Security
Visitors are reminded about the security issue in direct ways. Airline passengers get a much more thorough and time-consuming quizzing than in the United States. Even so, at every takeoff, one wonders, "Did something sneak through?"
But no foreigner has died in a terrorist attack in Israel since the 1996 bombing of a Jerusalem bus that killed American students Matthew Eisenfeld and Sara Duker, as well as 24 Israelis.
Tzion Ben-David, the head of North American operations for the tourist office, pointed out that foreigners are far less likely in Israel to suffer the sorts of lesser assaults -- muggings, pickpockets, camera thefts, swindles -- than they would be in Rome or Lisbon, for example. Even late at night, women can walk safely in the entertainment areas with a freedom that a New Yorker, San Franciscan or Washingtonian would envy.
Last week, the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, meeting in Israel, said it will work for repeal of the State Department's advisory warning U. S. citizens not to travel in Israel. Israeli officials say the warning, issued after the Sept. 28 uprising, does not reflect the reality of everyday life.
The greatest dangers we faced were those that confront any traveler on a fast tour at this time of year -- backache in crowded planes and exposure to a cabin full of colds and flu, a bad falafel that kills a night's rest, fatigue from late hours, good wine and little sleep.
One of our group, from Miami, said a tourist coming to his city was, by several orders of magnitude, more likely to be in physical danger than we were in Israel.
Most American Jews think about going to Israel out of spiritual or cultural conviction. They could go just to have fun.
From Haifa in the north to Eilat at the south, the country has developed a wide range of luxury resorts that can compete with the better-known watering holes of the Mediterranean, the South Pacific or the Caribbean.
Haifa, for example, boasts a dozen luxury hotels, some with commanding views of both the commercial harbor and the west-facing beaches. Even in last week's relatively cool weather, large numbers of Israeli and European tourists were shelling out $300 a night for these accommodations.
Most are an easy walk to the increasingly dramatic hanging gardens of the Baha'i Shrine on Mount Carmel and the 150-year-old German colony. Short drives within the city get you to interesting stores and galleries, good restaurants and a night life that rocks.
Haifa can and does serve as a central place to leave your bags while you explore the Galilee to the east or the coast to the south, with Caesarea a particularly interesting place for a picnic in Roman ruins.
Ein Bokek -- on the Dead Sea south of Qumram, where the scrolls were found, and of Masada -- is something of a fantasy world for tourists. Within recent years, major hotel chains have built nearly 4,000 luxury rooms as a getaway, primarily for older couples.
The chief attraction is the sea itself, where even the worst swimmer is unsinkable, but the hotels also push special services like facials and full-body hot-mud treatments.
Eilat is the real shocker. Three decades ago, it was a minor town on the Egyptian border whose reputation was overshadowed by the "lost city" of Petra a couple of hours east in Jordan and by Aqaba, just on the other side of the Red Sea.
Now Eilat looks like Cancun between the mountains.
The hotels, like Herod's Palace and the Queen of Sheba, are exercises in fantasy and whimsy, and the beaches and promenades hum with activity. The coral reef has become one of the hot lures for snorkelers, offering an exceptional variety of fish and floral life.
Yisrael, a goldsmith on the beachfront promenade in Eilat, says he is surprised that Americans have not discovered his city in greater numbers. Prices, he says, are about half what they would be in comparable American venues, and he speaks from 18 months of experience at a mall in Ft. Lauderdale. The handmade silver bracelets he sells would easily command twice the price in the States, he says, with the assurance of a born salesman.
The Myron Browns, who hailed from Dallas before they made aliyah more than 20 years ago, repeat that Israel in general, and Eilat in particular, are bargains. They are in Eilat for a week at the Ocean Club, a sprawling complex of one- and two-bedroom units designed to resemble the decks on a luxury liner. Their one-bedroom timeshare costs $100 a day to rent, compared to the $300 or so a night at the luxury hotels.
With Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia in gunshot range, Eilat ought to be as nervous as Jerusalem, but it clearly isn't.
After a day of exploring the Underwater Observatory Marine Park, including a ride to 180 feet below sea level in the Yellow Submarine, a Ms. Adams from Manchester explains why she brought her son, Tommy, to Eilat for his 10th birthday.
She has traveled widely as a policewoman, she says, and this hunk of Israel seemed perfect for his wide-eyed interest.
But is it safe? She laughs, calling Eilat "the safest place in the world."