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 ...1