U.K. operators ban package trips to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv

LONDON — Britain's leading tour operators have imposed a ban on the sale of package trips to Israel involving visits to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.

The operators, who control more than 90 percent of the British package-vacation market, will offer customers who have already booked trips to Israel a cash refund or alternative vacation destinations. Eilat-only packages are excluded from the ban.

The decision was made by the 18 constituent members of Britain's Federation of Tour Operators and then conveyed to Israeli officials over the weekend by the federation's secretary general, Alan Flook.

The recent spate of bombings in Israel prompted the British Foreign Office to issue a relatively mild travel advisory, which cited no direct threats to tourists from terrorism. Nevertheless, the advisory counseled would-be visitors that "using experienced tour operators/local taxi drivers minimizes risks."

Flook told The Jerusalem Post Tuesday that the British tour operators were acting to reduce their own risks, as they would be held responsible for any customers killed or injured on excursions to destinations the operators knew to be dangerous.

He insisted that Israel is not being treated any differently from other countries, citing a similar ban on the sale of package holidays to Sri Lanka following domestic upheavals there.

"We think Israel is a super place to go," Flook said. "But we have to look over our shoulders."

He added that the response from Israeli officials was "stronger than I have ever experienced from any other country. If there are no more bombings and the situation calms down, I would expect the excursions to be started again soon. This is what we all want," he said, speaking for the entire group of tour operators.

It is unknown how seriously the ban will affect the approximately 330,000 British tourists who visit Israel each year — 75 percent of whom go to Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

But Israeli Government Tourist Office director Eliezer Hod told The Jerusalem Post that the cancellation rate is low. He was outraged by the tour operators' decision.

"It is quite inexplicable," he said.

Israel Tour Operators Association chairman Avi Friedman expressed "shock" at the British companies' decision and noted that in the wake of recent IRA bombings his own organization had not issued negative travel advice to London-bound Israelis.

"We have, in fact, encouraged and promoted London as a prime tourist destination in these difficult times," Friedman told his British counterparts in an official message.

"We would have expected similar support from our travel colleagues," he added, "and implore you to review your action."