Threat of war is discouraging tourists from traveling to Israel

JERUSALEM — Chuzi Amiel, director of Amiel Tours, received a fax last week from a German tour organizer, who wanted to know why tourists should come to Israel when Germany has just sent gas masks here.

This is the kind of question that Amiel, whose company is a leader in incoming tourism, and others in the industry have had to contend with in light of the current crisis with Iraq.

Amiel, for his part, downplayed the situation's effect on tourism, although he admitted that he's received many queries from concerned clients abroad. The real test, he said, will be during March, April and May.

"It is true that reservations are down, but they are not down to zero," Amiel said.

For example, he said, groups that might have had 40 visitors now have 25. The important thing, he stressed, was that the traffic was continuing.

According to Hotel Association director Avi Rosental, the threat of another Gulf War is just one more blow to incoming tourism, which has been on the decline for the past two years.

Although Rosental said he's seen no evidence of current cancellations, he is more concerned about those who might now be hesitant about making reservations for the traditional high seasons of Pesach and Easter. If the uncertainty over a possible conflict continued, this could even affect the High Holy Days in the fall, he added.

Last year, the number of tourists staying at Israeli hotels dropped by 8 percent compared to 1996. This year, a year which by all accounts ought to be a banner year, marking the 50th anniversary of the state, there could be another drop of up to 15 percent, he said.

"That could leave us with half a million fewer tourists," Rosental said.