Friday, August 18, 2006

Mideast war tangles travel industry


By Verena Dobnik

NEW YORK - Even Hezbollah missiles couldn't keep Hilda Goodman and her husband from canceling a trip to Israel they planned 13 years ago, when their grandson was born.

For his bar mitzvah in October, the couple plan to be in Jerusalem.

Since hostilities in Israel and Lebanon started in July, Americans looking at the Middle East as a travel destination have had to answer a pressing question: to go or not to go.

While tens of thousands of would-be visitors canceled flights, at least as many others are going to Israel, including tourists, college students, devout Jews and some Christians.

"We're going on the belief that things will work out," said Goodman of Miami, adding that she knows dozens of other Americans going to Israel for the Jewish holidays of Yom Kippur and Rosh Hashanah this fall.

"People who really want to go to Israel for spiritual reasons don't cancel," said Batia Plotch, an Israeli-raised Manhattan trip organizer whose siblings live in northern Israel.

Of the more than 40,000 monthly U.S. visitors to Israel, as many as 35 percent canceled their trips in the month after the violence started in July, said Ari Sommer, Israel's tourism commissioner for North and South America.

Christian groups that planned Holy Land pilgrimages later this year are holding off, with promises that they won't have to pay any flight or hotel penalties should they decide not to go, Sommer said. If they do travel, their itineraries will omit a standard tourist stop, the Sea of Galilee in northern Israel, which was under fire.

At Tel Aviv University, about 20 Americans originally planning to attend classes have canceled so far, said Olivia Blechner, director of academic affairs at Israel's Consulate General in New York.

But more than 500 college-age students who belong to the Lubavitch Orthodox Jewish movement will attend a dozen yeshivas in Israel starting next month.

"If we were not to go, the message we would be sending is one of despair," said rabbinical student Levi Schectman, 22, of Milwaukee.

Across the border in Lebanon, travel is practically impossible except using side roads.

The city's airport, bombed by Israelis trying to cut supply arteries to Hezbollah, means any trip into the nation amounts to Russian roulette on wheels: a flight to Amman, Jordan, or Damascus, Syria, then a cab or car ride over side roads to Beirut, bypassing highways and other major roads and bridges that were destroyed in aerial attacks.

"It's a total risk. Any moving thing could be a target," said Jack Stepanian, who owns the Panorama travel agency in New York. He said the trip costs "a fortune," with the cab ride from the Syrian border to Beirut alone adding up to as much as $400.

The American University in Beirut, which usually hosts about 250 American students, "is not sure we can expect any at all," said spokeswoman Ada Porter. "The current condition of the infrastructure in Lebanon will make it very difficult for anyone to reach the university."

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