I was more than a little conflicted when Israel's Ministry of Tourism invited me to visit the Holy Land for one week in December to judge for myself whether the country was safe enough for tourists. I'd never traveled to Israel before, and while I knew that life was going on as usual for most Israelis, CNN's daily images of conflict and the U.S. State Department's warning fed my apprehension.
Like many who have either postponed or canceled their trips to Israel since late September, I was worried that I could very easily become another statistic on the nightly news. But I decided to go, because I wanted to see if my fears, and those of the larger Jewish community, were justified.
The flight over was unexpectedly cramped, crowded and restless. In response to a 30 percent drop in business, El Al has elected to use smaller planes instead of flying half-full or reducing fares, according to El Al spokesman Nachman Klieman.
Following my arrival at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv, I joined with the other journalists in my tour group and left for Jerusalem. A few hours later, we sat down for dinner at Darna -- a Moroccan restaurant whose atmosphere and cuisine put Dar Maghreb to shame -- and met with our host, Tourism Minister Amnon Lipkin-Shahak.
Before the intifada began in late September, 2000 was shaping up to be a banner year for Israel, with a 30 percent expected increase in tourism, according to Lipkin-Shahak. But after three months, a 40 percent drop has led to the loss of at least $250 million and 15,000 jobs. David, the tour's bus driver, confessed to us that he hadn't worked the two weeks prior to our arrival.
"If people want to support Israel, they should visit Israel," Lipkin-Shahak said.
The next morning, the King David Hotel's famous breakfast buffet offered up a tempting selection, but there were few takers. Beyond the two dozen people in the press tour, the five-star hotel was practically empty. The Israel Hotels Association is anticipating an occupancy rate of only 35 percent for the beginning of 2001, and two hotels have temporarily closed their doors.
As I walked off breakfast in the Old City, its gems were nearly bereft of admirers. But the lack of tourists at the Western Wall, the Western Wall tunnels, Via Dolorosa and the Tower of David Museum meant unfettered, quick access for those who went ahead with travel plans. I gleefully haggled in the shuk and memorized Hebrew for "No, thank you" in no time at all, had a bite to eat in the Jewish Quarter at Cardo Culinaria -- a scaled-down Roman version of Medieval Times -- and caught the Dale Chihuly glass exhibit in its last week at the Tower of David.
The only time I saw anything resembling Palestinian unrest first-hand was while I was walking alone in the Jewish Quarter. A gang of eight Palestinian teens charged across a parking lot, yelling at a young Orthodox boy while he was taking out some trash. But the police and army personnel, who seemed to be everywhere, were more than ready. They defused the situation so quickly and without incident, I didn't have time to think about whether I was in danger or not.
Unlike Los Angeles, where I'm on guard while walking down the street in broad daylight, I roamed Israel's streets at night with no fear. I perused stores along Jaffa Road in West Jerusalem and caught up on my e-mail at a cyberpub near Ben Yehuda Street. The only time I really had a safety concern was when it came to public transportation. I've read more than my fair share of stories about bombs on public buses, so I allayed my fears by taking taxis.
The third day of my tour started with wine tasting at the Carmel Winery in Zichron Yaacov and ended with a walking tour of street art in Haifa that highlighted coexistence between Christian Arabs and Jews. The next morning, I previewed the breathtaking new Baha'i Gardens, which stretch from the foot to the crest of Mount Carmel in terraces designed as nine concentric circles. The gardens are scheduled to open in May. Be sure to bring good shoes to tackle the gardens' kilometer hike, and dress modestly if you plan to enter the temple.
The last two days were spent doing some much-needed unwinding in Eilat, a resort town popular among Europeans and Israelis. Located at the southern tip of Israel on the Red Sea, Eilat features an underwater observatory and submarine rides, opportunities to swim with dolphins, beaches, some amazing hotels and Herods Vitalis, a decadent health spa.
After four days in near-empty accommodations, Eilat's domestic appeal on weekends ensured that the plush Queen of Sheba Hilton would hold some signs of life. But even sun-drenched Eilat is taking a hit, and its hotels are expecting to run at only 30 percent capacity during January and February.
The day I arrived in Eilat, I learned about a Palestinian riot in the Old City the same way most of Israel did -- on the evening news. As I watched the footage, it was a little shocking to see the Israeli military hold back Palestinians observing the "day of rage" in a spot I'd walked through just three days before. The more I watched, the more I realized I was nearly 200 miles away from a rare melee in Old Jerusalem that had already been quelled. I turned off the TV and answered the beckoning call of Eilat's nightlife.
The next day, Palestinian violence was the last thing on my mind as I strolled along the beachfront shuk and shopped in Eilat's mall.
By the end of the tour, I was more conflicted over whether I wanted to return to the U.S. or make aliyah. American tourists in Israel are as likely to encounter violence as a New York family would have on a trip to Disneyland during the L.A. Riots in 1992. To date, no tourists have been hurt by Palestinian unrest since the current crisis began. Unless you're in the West Bank and Gaza, there's not much reason to worry. Bottom line: Israel is safer than CNN or the State Department would have you believe.
For more information about travel to Israel, be sure to visit the Israel Ministry of Tourism Web site: www.goisrael.com.