Israel hoping peace will spark international tourism, trade

TEL AVIV — A barbershop quartet wearing kippot rhapsodized about peace, ushering in the Prime Minister's Conference on Peace Tourism held two weeks ago in Tel Aviv.

The government's refrain during the four-day conference was simple: As peace slowly gathers momentum in the Middle East, a dramatic increase in tourism will be one of its major rewards.

"The rich and fascinating cultures of all the countries in the area, their history and natural resources, their sites and attractions, all will combine in harmony for today's world to enjoy," said Uzi Baram, Israel's Minister of Tourism, speaking to conference delegates. "Peace itself will [realize] the great potential of the region."

The Jewish state is hoping to welcome 5 million international visitors annually — twice the current figure — by the year 2006.

To this end, Israel's Ministry of Tourism has declared this the "Year of Peace Tourism." Kicking off the occasion with the conference, the government invited 350 hotel and aviation executives, travel professionals, journalists and investors from 35 countries. They were not only serenaded, but also wined, dined and tantalized with new opportunities in the Middle East.

Just days before the conference, Israel officially launched another plan to bring in tourists, Jerusalem 3000, a 15-month celebration of King David's founding of the ancient city, which will include entertainment and cultural events.

The Prime Minister's Conference on Peace Tourism extended this national hoopla, culminating in a sound-and-light show and an appearance by Academy Award-winner Ben Kingsley. The "Schindler's List" actor was in Israel to receive a Peace Tourism Award for his work portraying humanitarians such as Mahatma Gandhi and Simon Wiesenthal.

Many high-level tourism executives, however, need little prodding to do business in the Jewish state.

Since the Oslo Accords were signed two years ago, profits from tourism in Israel have risen steadily. In 1994, income from tourism reached $2.7 billion, a 5 percent increase over 1993, with the number of tourists rising 11 percent. The Ministry of Tourism estimates that 2.5 million tourists will visit Israel by the end of 1995.

International hotel chains are attempting to capitalize on this trend. Hyatt International Corp., for example, has already broken ground on several new hotels, including a 600-room health-and-beauty resort at the Dead Sea. At this moment, 1,200 new hotel rooms are under construction in Israel, with 1,500 in the planning stages.

In a press conference for international delegates, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin pointed out that Israel is a unique tourist destination, not only because it houses sacred sites of three major religions, but also because it includes the lowest point on Earth — the Dead Sea.

"Show me any other place a person can lie on the surface of the water without drowning. I don't know of such a place," he joked.

While hotel chains are taking advantage of the country's attractive climate — both in terms of weather and peace — airlines such as Air Canada and Swissair are increasing flights to the Jewish state, hoping to accommodate the growing number of travelers.

As airline executives and others milled around the conference between workshops, taking informal meetings, talking frantically on their cellular phones and swapping business cards, their main concern seemed to be about the country's infrastructure: With the roads already clogged and airports jammed, investors wonder how the country will sustain a new barrage of tourists. What's more, they worry about who will staff hotels and other projects in areas like Eilat, where there is a shortage of available workers and housing.

Baram and other tourism officials addressed these issues, noting that three new hotel schools have recently opened, training hundreds of former Soviet olim and others to staff hotels.

Israeli leaders, however, see tourism as more than just a means of encouraging the country's economic independence and providing new jobs. They say tourism in the Middle East is also a way to buttress the peace process.

The overriding theme of the conference was that peace and tourism are inextricably linked: While peace encourages tourism, tourism also enhances peace.

Speaking at the conference, Economic Affairs Minister Yossi Beilin called tourism the "safety net for peace." When people from different nations get to know each other personally through travel, hostilities are mitigated, he said.

"Tourism is one of the factors that make the peace process really irreversible."

In his talk on "Trends in World Tourism: The Middle East Focus," Antonio Enriquez Savignac, secretary general of the World Tourism Organization, echoed this sentiment, saying tourism "brings people from different backgrounds and cultures together in a spirit of friendship and hospitality."

But hours after Savignac's warm discourse on friendship, CNN aired a story on Jerusalem 3000, featuring a spot interview with a Palestinian man who appeared disgusted by the concept.

Grimacing, he told the camera, "I don't celebrate with my enemy, who moves into my home."

His comment highlighted the fact that peace within Israel is not a fait accompli. While Israel is negotiating with the Palestinians to expand self-rule in areas such as Bethlehem, terrorism continues, albeit sporadically.

And as tour directors lamented, every time a bus blows up, tourism goes down — at least temporarily.

Baram declared terrorism the "enemy" of tourism. However, he added, "The peace process is winning. People reschedule their visits [to Israel], but when all is said and done, they do arrive."