Israel enticing U.S. tourists, saying country is safe

JAFFA, Israel — Lately David "Du Du" Golan will settle for a meager 100 shekels a day, about 25 American dollars.

With tourism in Israel dramatically reduced since the late September outbreak of violence, Golan, a driver of tour buses, must take what little money he can get.

For 16 days prior to my arrival Dec. 4 in Tel Aviv, Golan, who supports four children and a wife, sat workless in his Gilo home — certainly not by choice.

"Nobody is coming," said Golan as we talked in a Jaffa restaurant. "Two or three months ago all you hear is English…now, nothing. I know they're afraid, but they must come. Now is when we need our brothers most."

Though earning less than half of his usual salary, Golan is actually one of the lucky ones.

Since October, more than 15,000 people working in tourist-related industries throughout Israel have lost their jobs, said Amnon Lipkin Shahak, Israel's minister of tourism and transportation. And with tourism to Israel down 40 percent, Shahak estimated an overall loss of at least one billion shekels — or $250 million.

"Suddenly it's like a hammer on our heads," he said. "We cannot cover our losses."

Between CNN's coverage of the al-Aksa intifada and the U.S. State Department's recommendation not to visit Israel, even I couldn't help but wonder why I was putting my life in jeopardy by joining a press tour sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism. But from the moment I arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, I knew my fear had been unjustified.

"CNN is only interested in stone-throwing," Shahak charged. With the exception of some isolated areas, like the West Bank, "Israelis don't feel the violence in their daily life."

From my perspective, neither do the tourists.

And yet they are not coming.

"This week last year, we are at around 90 percent occupancy in Jerusalem hotels," said Shahak. "This year — 30 percent."

Suzette Bruhn, director of sales and marketing at Jerusalem's Mount Zion Hotel, concurred. "We were 200 percent overbooked this year" until the outbreak of violence, she said. "Now, even with the special rates we're offering, we only have 30 percent occupancy."

My footsteps echoed as I walked through a practically empty lobby in Jerusalem's highly touted King David Hotel, where three or four bellhops stood without purpose, staring out the front windows.

Helping myself to a glorious yet barely touched breakfast buffet filled with varieties of cheeses, salads, potatoes, eggs and cakes, my heart went out to the hotel's cooks who undoubtedly slaved in the kitchen. The dining room seemed to be overstaffed by waiters. Servers quickly, eagerly and repeatedly filled my coffee cup before I even had a chance to empty it.

My experience was similar during breakfast at Haifa's Dan Carmel Hotel on Dec. 7, where my group was joined by the city's mayor, Amram Mizna. He noted: "It's not as bad as you see on television. We have learned to live in a situation where…despite problems on our borders…we live, we develop ourselves and we continue with the same agenda we had before."

A few days earlier, the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City appeared much smaller than I'd expected, with so few men and women — and virtually no tourists — standing before it to pray.

Several soldiers casually chatted near the entrance of the Wall, with guns slung over their shoulders. Nearby I spotted a couple dancing, then hugging and kissing, off in the distance of the Jewish Quarter.

In the nearby Muslim and the Armenian quarters, the majority of shopkeepers sat in silent desperation on stools outside their shops, most — but certainly not all — looking drained of all desire to haggle with the infrequent customer.

"I give you a good deal, my friend," pleaded one shopkeeper in an Armenian market, as I passed by his storefront. "Nobody buying, business bad, so I give you a good deal."

I, an inexperienced haggler, ended up purchasing four mother-of-pearl jewelry boxes for a mere 250 shekels, or 60-something American dollars (down from his original offer of 800 shekels).

With an overall feeling of tranquil apathy in the Old City, it truly seemed hard to believe that this is a location that people are afraid to visit.

But the facts speak for themselves.

"Till about two months ago, groups had to book two or three months in advance," said Arieh Bannel, a tour guide for the Western Wall tunnel. "At our peak we led 1,500 people through the tunnel a day. Now…we're lucky to get 700."

At the Ben-Gurion International Airport tarmac on Dec. 6, El Al spokesman Nacham Kleiman described similar circumstances: a 20 percent reduction of passengers in October, a 30 percent reduction in November and a 30 percent reduction estimated for December. The result has been a 10 percent reduction in El Al flights.

"We have too many planes on the ground…that should be in the air," he said, pointing with a sigh of relief toward a lone El Al plane taking off on the nearby runway.

El Al, like many other tourist-related industries, has not only had to let go of its seasonal employees, but also has forced vacations for many of its full-time employees. The company has both attempted to adapt the size of its aircraft to the number of passengers and combined several smaller flights into larger aircraft.

"Our business class out of Israel has remained fully booked," added Kleiman. "Businessmen outside of Israel aren't coming in to do business, so Israeli businessmen are forced to go there."

As for the U.S. State Department warning, "I feel it's unwarranted," he said. "The interior of the country is safe."

And while there's a decline in the number of Jews visiting, Kleiman did say, "Jews don't cancel, they postpone."

Even the tourist city of Eilat has seen a drop in tourism. This is surprising to locals like Michelle and Russell Kibel, who jokingly call the city "The Principality of Eilat," because "it has so little to do with the rest of Israel, is located hundreds of miles from Arab areas" and is "100 percent safe."

According to a massage therapist at the Queen of Sheba Hotel, two Eilat hotels "have shut down and a lot of my friends have lost their jobs."

The Kibels, originally from South Africa, run a low-budget villa in an Eilat neighborhood and have been substantially hurt by the fall in tourism. Russell Kibel estimates a $10,000 loss between late September and the end of December.

"Up until October we were doing great," he said. "But now we have cancellations for the whole of Christmas and the New Year. On weekends we can limp along because the Israelis come, but the rest of the week is absolutely dead."

A scraggly, soaking wet stray cat hopped off a tree branch and onto the Kibels' second-story deck — overlooking a grayish Red Sea, a foggy Jordan and three Saudi Arabia smoke stacks. As I watched the cat nibbling the food left out by Michelle Kibel, with rain water dripping off its fur, I realized that the biggest frenzy to hit Eilat since the current intifada had little to do with the Palestinians and a lot to do with the first rainy day in four years.

"Seriously, it never rains here," said Michelle Kibel, also watching the starving cat as she stroked the chin of her dog, Cheeky. "That's why most people come to Eilat — for the sunshine."

Turning her attention away from the animals and toward the wet laundry hung out on the deck before the rain, she grew frantic. "At this rate," she said, "our clothes are never going to dry."