Keeping the Faith

Tourism officials are still promoting travel to Israel -- mostly to religious groups.

By: Kevin Brass

Violence in Israel and the Middle East continues to decimate Israel’s tourism industry. The number of travelers is down 70% since 2000, according to government figures.

But the Israel government is still working to attract visitors. Faced with the cold reality of the situation, officials are focusing on markets that are tried and true primarily religious travelers, according to Dana Kempler, director of public relations for the Israel Government Tourist Office’s Western region.

While tourists looking for beach or spa vacations may be looking elsewhere, some members of the Jewish and Christian communities still see travel to Israel as important and meaningful.

“Many of the people who are going today are going to show solidarity,” Kempler said.

Israel tourism representatives have been attending Christian conferences and hosting groups of Christian writers to encourage religious journeys to the Holy Land.

Most recently, Kempler has been staging seminars throughout the West for Christian groups focusing on the stories of women in the Bible.

“We’re seeing a really good response,” Kempler said. “There is a lot of interest among Christian women groups to go to Israel to learn about the women in the Bible.”

In the Southern region, Magda Sanchez of the Israel Ministry of Tourism has staged three presentations specifically reaching out to Latino church groups in Texas in recent weeks.

“It’s the first time we’ve been able to communicate to them in their own language,” Sanchez said. “In the Latino community there’s a trust factor when you’re from their own background.”

Each reception has drawn 15 to 25 people. Initially, attendees are skeptical, but many see that a trip to Israel can be more than a personal spiritual journey, Sanchez said. “By traveling you’re saying it’s OK to be there.”

The U.S. State Department continues to warn travelers to defer travel to Israel. On its Web site (http://travel.state. gov/travel_warnings.html) American citizens are warned to “avoid locations such as restaurants and cafes, shopping areas, malls, pedestrian zones, public buses and bus stops or other crowded venues and the areas around them.”

The potential for attacks in Jerusalem, where frequent terrorist acts have occurred, remains high, according to the State Department.

Americans should also avoid large crowds and demonstrations, the State Department says.

The Israel Ministry of Tourism has their own suggestions about how to safely travel in Israel. For example, they recommend that travelers in some areas hire qualified drivers instead of using public transportation. Office personnel will also provide detailed information about safe roads and potential hot spots.

“We want people to know we’re here and that we can help,” Sanchez said.

Call 800-472-6364. Web site: www.goisrael. com.