Tour operator Tova Gilead returned from a 10-day trip to Israel in early January and brought back wonderful stories of people experiencing the beauty and history of the Holy Land, many for the first time. Before the resurgence of Palestinian-Israeli violence in September, 228 people had signed up for Gilead's special B'nai Mitzvah family trip to Israel, but only 17 people actually accompanied her on the tour. For upcoming trips, she says, "I get cancellations every day."
Many organizations have planned "solidarity missions" to bring Americans to Israel and demonstrate support, and Hillel's Birthright Israel program has sent thousands of young men and women to the state in the past months. Yet American travel agents report tourism is down as much as 60 percent compared to the past few years.
For Dorit Zohar of World Express Travel in Tarzana, the travelers who go to Israel and the cancellations demonstrate a definite pattern. "Israelis still go, Americans don't," she noted.
Zohar added that those with friends or relatives in Israel were less likely to cancel trips, as they learned firsthand which areas were safe. The travel agents interviewed for this report generally agreed that with the exception of the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, the places tourists want to visit are safe. With most of the violence confined to Palestinian-controlled areas, tourists can feel comfortable visiting Tel Aviv and Old Jaffa, Eilat, Haifa, Masada, the Galilee and Golan Heights, and most of Jerusalem.
Jay Press, owner of Israel Travel Discounters in Philadelphia, pointed to a different problem for Americans visiting Israel in the past few months.
"They were lonely," he said, "They were very happy they went, but they felt like the only tourists there." Press added that at this time of year, when people would ordinarily be planning or finalizing Passover travel to Israel, "we haven't seen as many cancellations [as in October-December], but we haven't seen as many more people sign up as we normally would." Press estimates his business is down 30 percent from last year.
Barring a final, complete peace accord, these travel industry insiders are divided as to what it will take to get Americans back to Israel. Price discounts do not seem to be the answer, or even really an issue. Many hotels have reduced their rates and El Al has added some incentives for frequent fliers to use their miles now, yet for the most part prices for a trip to Israel remain steady.
"I just don't believe that's the issue," says Gilead, "People are dying to go, they want to go ... when they feel safe."
Some potential travelers may be waiting until after the Jan. 20 inauguration of George W. Bush and the Feb. 7 elections in Israel, to see how the new leaders in charge handle the delicate situation. For others, the plan is simply to wait and see, until the shooting stops. For now, many Americans are staying away. But as Tova Gilead says of her recent trip, "No one was sorry that they went."