- The Washington Times - Friday, September 26, 2003

AKKO, Israel — “Don’t send us your money. Send us your people,” says Moshe Nov, travel consultant, lecturer and as fine a guide — and person — as any tourist can hope to meet anywhere.

“The money we can use, of course, but it goes to one place. But people, when they spend money, it goes around and helps more people in the tourism industry.”

Actually, Mr. Nov is taking a short break from being a guide, as that duty is being handled by an immigrant from Brugge, Belgium, who was a colleague of Mr. Nov’s in the guide business. With the downturn in visitors to Israel, she lost her job, but she says she was fortunate to find a position with Israel’s national park service at the old walled city that goes back to the Canaanite era more than 5,000 years ago. “A lot of my colleagues are still looking for work,” she says.

From more than 3 million visitors in 2001, Israel slipped to about 1 million tourists last year. After President Bush declared an end to the Iraq war — Baghdad is less than 500 miles from northern Israel — there was a resurgence in tourism, but nowhere near the 2001 figure, much of which was connected with the new millennium. The fear of travel to Israel has remained in many would-be visitors, in particular the fear that is caused by the news of suicide bomb attacks in restaurants, on buses and at bus stops.

Israeli tourism officials point out that the terrorist attacks have not been against tourists because they are tourists, as has happened in attacks on visitors in Egypt, but some tourists have been passengers on public buses and customers in restaurants and become victims of suicide bombs.

“These attacks are planned to terrorize Israelis, not tourists, but they end up hurting everybody here,” he says in reference to the high unemployment among workers affected by the slump in tourism and the fact that many of the lost jobs were held by Arabs.

Here in Akko, an ancient Phoenician port, we see what has been unearthed from the old crusader castle after debris 35 feet deep were removed from courtyards and great Gothic-arched halls. We marvel at the preservation of a hamam, a Turkish bath, that the Ottomans built — along with the city walls — when they kicked out the crusaders and ruled Akko. In 1799, the Ottoman governor Ahmed Pasha el-Jazzar thwarted Napoleon in his attempt to take Akko.

We visit a souvenir shop in which a metal craftsman says with a sigh that there are few visitors to the city and to his shop.

Our tour over, we walk toward several street-side shops, where a woman hurriedly leaves the men to whom she is talking and dashes along the empty parking area to her shop. “Oh, visitors,” she says. “It is so good to see visitors.”

We have heard these words before — at a souvenir stand at the ancient port of Jaffa, which is part of the much newer Tel Aviv.

“There used to be many buses here. And shops, crowds of people,” Mr. Nov says. “You can see there is no one now.”

A coffee shop is deserted despite the old stone walls and buildings that are even more golden from the setting sun, a time when the port is most romantic. But there are brides and grooms and photographers, for this still is a preferred site for wedding photos, especially on the long sets of stairs and the manicured Ha-Pisga garden. Jaffa, according to the Bible, was founded by Noah’s son Japheth, and it’s one of the world’s oldest ports.

At Metula, on a tip of land jutting into Lebanon in the far northern area of Golan, Reuben Wineberg, the owner of the Alaska Inn Hotel, says the obvious: His business — founded by his parents — is slow. Houses in the area, however, have become very expensive, he says, pointing to a run-down building across the street that is available for more than $1 million. “It could make a hotel,” he says, “but with no customers, well, it is still for sale.”

Mr. Wineberg’s wife had an observation deck built atop the hotel as a memorial to her father. Signs on the railing identify the geographical features in four directions: Mount Hermon, the Golan Heights, the Good Fence, the Ayun Valley. This area of vast orchards in valleys and on hillsides is west of the ruins of the ancient city of Dan and the ruins of Nimrod, a major crusader castle.

The Golan, says Israel Eshed, a chicken farmer and general manager of the Golan Tourist Association, is one of the most peaceful areas of Israel.

“Until the mid-1980s, we had many tourists from North America. Now they are very few. How come? It is so quiet here, and people don’t come when it is also so safe here.”

With Mr. Eshed, we follow Sajea Salach to his comfortable home in the village of Majdal Shams (tower of the sun). At 3,871 feet, Majdal Shams is the highest village in Israel, and it becomes very busy during the high season, when people, mostly Israelis, come to ski on Mount Hermon.

Mr. Salach is one of about 17,000 Druse in the area — an old sect of non-Muslim Arabs. Most members of a Druse tribe follow the four basics of their religion: no alcoholic beverages, no pork, no adultery and living a monogamous life, he says. About 16,500 residents of Golan are Jewish.

Mr. Salach’s wife, Adela, serves us strong Arab coffee and honey-filled pastries, but as our hosts, they are disappointed that we cannot stay for lunch.

Many of the Druse have become successful farmers and fruit growers and, with the Jewish kibbutz and moshav farmers to the south, raise dairy and beef cattle as well as apples, pears and cherries. “We have the best apples in Israel,” Mr. Eshed says. Mr. Nov agrees.

Mr. Salach took over operation of a nearby restaurant from his uncle. He also planned a small 30-room hotel, but since September 11, tourism has been getting worse. “My dream now will take a little longer,” he says.

Mr. Salach’s family has been in the area as long as he knows; the village is about 500 years old, and Druse have been living in the area since the 11th century. He was born in 1961 as a Syrian citizen and was 6 when the Six Day War broke out. “Half of the people who lived in the village were not home at the time of the war and had to stay in Syria,” he says, adding that between 400 and 500 students from his and three other villages are studying in Syria now and that their education is virtually free.

Not so long ago, he says, the four villages shared one tractor and one car.

Majdal Shams is getting along and has been quiet since the 1974 disengagement of war with Syria. Many of the houses reflect a degree of prosperity, and a Mercedes-Benz by a home is not out of place.

A short distance to the east is the memorial to the 7th Brigade, whose tanks, although grossly outnumbered, repulsed the hundreds of Syrian tanks and their futile invasion of Israel through the Valley of Tears during the 1973 war. Two other visitors are at the memorial site.

To the south, the resort hotels of Tiberias on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee are not faring well with tourism, but southeast of the sea, the hot springs resort (with adjacent alligator farm) at Hammat-Gader seems more popular.

Several tour buses are in the parking lot, and the resort has opened a new, more expensive section with air-conditioned accommodations furnished with Jacuzzis. Several people praise the food served at the kosher Thai restaurant on the premises.

From a hilltop with empty guest accommodations and restaurant overlooking Jericho, Mr. Nov talks about the only high-rise in the city, which is under Palestinian control and is not visited by Israelis. “That casino,” he says, “has a parking lot for 3,000 cars, and they took in thousands of dollars a day. So much money. Now all those people have lost their jobs, and most of them cannot find any other work.”

In this case, the service-industry unemployment is more because of politics and territory, but it is another example of how a once-thriving destination now suffers. A bunker is dug into the hill a few yards below a gazebo lookout that was built for tourists amid the one bright spot in this parched area, a row of incredibly brilliant bougainvillea.

Mr. Nov thinks that before too long, Israel may permit casinos. “They will realize that Israelis are going to gamble,” he says.

Farther south in the entrance building for the national park developed at Qumran, the site of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, the restaurant staff has had to lay off more than a dozen employees, many of them Arabs. There are not many tour buses these days.

The manager says he frequently receives calls from former employees hoping there is a vacancy. “But we have none,” he says.

He also tells us that his brother is working at the Jerusalem Cafe, a restaurant in Toronto, upon which a woman says: “I know that restaurant. That’s where I had my retirement dinner.”

We continue south to Masada, the mountaintop fortress where the 1,000 Jewish residents chose death rather than slavery when 10,000 Romans breached the walls after a lengthy siege.

The cable car that takes visitors to the ruins is modern and efficient, but there are few passengers and no tourist buses in the parking lot.

In Neot Hakikar, near the southern end of the Dead Sea, Shmaya and Pnina Toledano talk about their Coffee Shop Pnina and how business has decreased. Mr. Toledano, however, is also a successful fish farmer and delivers fish regularly to clients. To the north, the tour buses are scarce at the large hotels on the Dead Sea.

Even in the markets within the walls of old Jerusalem and in shops along the Via Doloroso, merchants complain about few customers, especially at shops that have catered to tourists. The decline in business is noted from restaurants praising their own falafel to shops specializing in antiquities. Grocers seem busy, as are the two men who grind coffee beans with or without a few cardamom seeds in the Arab manner.

My decision to accept an invitation from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism to visit Israel was questioned by friends and relatives — especially by my sister, who has a son stationed in Iraq — but at no time during my weeklong stay here, which includes stays in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, have I felt threatened. My first visit is too short, but I will come back.

Several hours after our El Al Israel Airlines flight lands at Tel Aviv (security is so competent that passengers eat their meals with stainless steel, not plastic, knives and forks), a cafe in Jerusalem and a group of soldiers at a bus stop near Tel Aviv are the targets of suicide bombers. We learn of these attacks from the van radio as our driver and guide translate the Hebrew of the announcer.

At the same time, people are waiting for transportation at other bus stops and people still crowd restaurants day and night. In Jerusalem later, we eat dinner outdoors in a lovely garden setting; one couple in the restaurant met during Passover last year during a terrorist attack in a hotel in the resort of Netanya.

On our last day in Jerusalem, we drive to Cafe Hillel and see the candles and other memorial tributes placed near the pale blue temporary wall erected around the bombed restaurant. The otherwise quietly busy neighborhood reminds me of cafes and shops near Washington’s Dupont Circle.

This could happen at Dupont Circle.

Israel marketing itself to faithful

Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, began last night — and also ushered in a campaign to get more Americans to visit Israel.

During the High Holy Days of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, tourism pledge cards are being placed on seats in synagogues across America, inviting people to promise to visit Israel during the coming year.

Pledges of solidarity can be made by folding the card to indicate the pledge or can be made online (www.goisrael.com/pledge2israel). Another Web site for information is www.ibelieveinisrael.com.

The pledge campaign — “I care. And I’m going.” — is sponsored by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations

Monthly increases in American tourism to Israel for most of 2003 have been between 30 and 60 percent over the comparable periods of 2002, according to the Ministry of Tourism. The July increase was 71 percent over 2002.

About 1.2 million tourists are expected to have visited Israel this year, but during 2001, more than 3 million Americans visited Israel.

Those who make the pledge will be entered automatically into a drawing for a luxurious tour to Israel that includes business-class airfare for two on El Al Israel Airlines and suites at Israel’s finest hotels.

— Richard Slusser