In the mid-1980s, visiting Israel around Easter Sunday was like shopping in a farmer's market at rush hour. "We'd wait three hours at some sites to get in," says Vincent Cioffi of Emmaus Tours in Margate, Florida.

In a typical year, Cioffi takes 2,000 people to the Holy Land. Recent months have been anything but typical. Only 41 people participated in Cioffi's $700 promotional package tour of Israel in January. Cioffi says that is roughly an 80 percent drop from the usual January business.

"I have no Easter tours," says Cioffi, a 20-year veteran of the tourism business. "This year is worse than last year."

Since the outbreak of violence in September 2000, more than 300 Israelis and more then 1,000 Palestinians have died in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza. Tourism, one of Israel's largest industries, declined 45 percent last year compared to 2000. Overall, the number of visitors to Israel has plunged from 2.2 million in 2000 to 1.2 million last year.

North American Christians, one of Israel's most important markets, appear to be in no hurry to return. About 485,000 Americans, most of them Christians, visited Israel in 2000. Only 253,000 made the trek in 2001. Educational Opportunities Tours of Lakeland, Florida, one of the largest Christian tour operations in the United States, transported about 5,000 people to the Holy Land in 2001. According to Susan Andrus, director of marketing, its best year was 1996, when it took 14,000 Americans to Israel.

Andrus believes it is still possible to travel safely in Israel. Speaking of her 3-year-old daughter, she said, "I would take her to the Holy Land in a heartbeat. I know it is safe, and it's important to support the Christian community there."

Some tourism officials blame the news media for the perception that travel to Israel is unsafe. But the U.S. State Department issued a travel warning in December. "Ongoing violence has caused numerous civilian deaths and injuries, including to some American tourists," the department warned. "The potential for further terrorist acts remains high. The situation in Gaza and the West Bank remains extremely volatile with continuing confrontations and clashes."

This year, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism is sharpening its marketing efforts toward American Christians. "For many years, American Christians have been among our best friends and greatest supporters of the State of Israel and of tourism to Israel," said Mina Ganem of the Israeli Tourist Office. "We really appreciate it. We are calling upon all of those who have encouraged tourism in the past to work with us to bring as many American Christians to Israel as possible, despite the headlines."

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The convention business has also slackened. The Evangelical Press Association agreed to hold its April 2002 convention in Israel, but organizers switched the venue to Colorado Springs as violence escalated. Nevertheless, the International Christian Embassy Jerusalem, a Christian Zionist group, held its annual celebration of the Feast of Tabernacles in Jerusalem in October, attracting overseas Christians.

Following a time-tested strategy, Israeli tourism leaders are showcasing visits by high-profile Christians. "We believe that as this community sees Christian leaders they respect go and return with a good report, that will stimulate others to travel as well," says Butch Maltby, a Colorado Springs consultant who works with the Israelis.

"For example, [author] Kay Arthur faithfully brings hundreds of Christians to Israel each year," he said. "She has told us that many of the people on those tours have thanked her for the opportunity to travel and for her bravery to defy the majority."

Arthur's Precept Ministries is still inviting participants to an April tour of Jerusalem, Galilee, and surrounding areas. Others in the Middle East are turning to additional markets to boost tourism. Resourceful Arab Christians are looking beyond the United States in search of fellow believers willing to visit. Habib Khoury, co-owner of Shepherds Tours & Travel Co. Ltd., says he is working with a Christian group from Uganda for an Easter tour. A passionate Christian, Khoury urged more Christians to travel to the Middle East.

"Christians of the Holy Land can be Palestinians, and we are suffering the same as our Palestinian Muslim brothers," Khoury says. "Occupation does not differentiate between Christian and Muslim, and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land at this time is very important."

Related Elsewhere

Related Christianity Today articles include:

Strengthen Christian Presence In The Holy Land, Carey PleadsMiddle-East leaders asked to help tone down violence that has killed 650 in 10 months. (August 2, 2001)
Violence Puts Archaeologists Between Rocks, Hard PlacesAbout half of the planned excavations in the Holy Land this summer have been canceled. (June 27, 2001)
Pilgrimages Drop and Workers Lose Jobs as Middle East Violence ContinuesSilence fills places normally crowded with pilgrims, reports British group. (April 11, 2001)
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Previous Christianity Today articles on violence in Israel:

Activists well acquainted with terror"Jerusalem Women Speak" tour gains relevance for audience members struggling with new fears. (September 27, 2001)
Palestine's Christians Persist Despite PressuresWith escalating violence in Israel, ministries face a "sad and scary" situation. (September 19, 2001)
Sleepless and 'Terrified', Orphans, Staff Dare to Hope Truce Will HoldAfter three days of fighting in Beit Jala, the Israeli army withdraws but warns it may return. (September 5, 2001)
Despite Israeli Objections, Irineos Is New Greek Orthodox PatriarchProtesting under a sixth century law, Israeli objections overturned by supreme court. (Aug. 23, 2001)
Amid Fears for Future, Jerusalem's Churches Embark On Prayers for PeaceWeek of prayer launched with services held in various congregations. (Aug. 22, 2001)
Amid Fears for Future, Jerusalem's Churches Embark On Prayers for PeaceWeek of prayer launched with services held in various congregations. (Aug. 22, 2001)
Greek Orthodox Priest Falls Victim to Middle East ConflictMonks worry they may appear as threats to each warring side. (June 21, 2001)
Holy Land RoadblocksChristian pilgrims learn about Palestinians' everyday indignities. (Apr. 9, 2001)
Christian Zionists Rally for Jewish StateMore than 600 Christians from around the world flock to Jerusalem to show solidarity with Israel as peace process collapses. (Apr. 9, 2001)
Between a Rock and a Holy SiteMuslims have stepped up their efforts to take control of places revered by Jews and Christians. (Feb. 13, 2001)
The Peace RegressWhat's behind the current outbreak of hostilities in the Holy Land? (Jan. 11, 2001)
Conflict in the Holy LandA timeline of trials for the most contested piece of real estate in the world.
Christmas in Palestine: Hunger and WarStarvation threatens Palestinian villages if U.N. aid continues to be delayed, Vatican official warns. (Dec. 13, 2000)
Between the Temple Mount and a Hard PlacePalestinian Christians want both peace in their villages and justice for their Muslim brothers. (Dec. 5, 2000)
Christmas Plans for Bethlehem ScrappedEscalating violence cancels millennial celebration in town of Christ's birth. (Dec. 1, 2000)
Lutheran Bishop's Appeal from JerusalemReligious leader's letter requests prayer for Christians, Jews, and Palestinians in troubled region. (Nov. 10, 2000)
Latin Patriarch tells Israel to Surrender Lands to PalestiniansCatholic leader says Israel will never have peace unless it "converts all of its neighbors to friends." (Nov. 1, 2000)
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Fighting Engulfs a Christian Hospital in JerusalemLutherans call conflict on their hospital grounds "an affront" to humanitarian purposes. (Oct. 16, 2000)
Israelis and Palestinians Pay Tribute to Pope's Pilgrimage to Holy LandThough some at grassroots remain unappeased, leaders of both groups are full of praise. (March 29, 2000)
Prepared for Pilgrims?As Christian tourism surges, Holy Land believers brave troubled future. (Feb. 10, 2000)
Apology Crusaders to Enter Israel (April 15, 1999)
West Bank Squeezed by Warring Majorities (Nov. 16, 1998)
How Evangelicals Became Israel's Best Friend (Oct. 5, 1998)
Jerusalem as Jesus Views It (Oct. 5, 1998)
Temple Mount on Shaky Ground?(April 6, 1998)

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