Violence in Holy Land hits tourism in peak month

But tour operators advise holidaymakers not to cancel their trips, reports Aileen Cruz

Violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories is forcing travel companies to cancel Holy Land tours at the worst possible time. Mid-September to mid-October, during which the Jewish "High Holy Days" of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fall, is the prime pilgrimage season, and tourist arrivals remain high during Britain's autumn half-term.

Violence in Israel and the Palestinian territories is forcing travel companies to cancel Holy Land tours at the worst possible time. Mid-September to mid-October, during which the Jewish "High Holy Days" of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur fall, is the prime pilgrimage season, and tourist arrivals remain high during Britain's autumn half-term.

"We have cancelled a Holy Land tour that included Jerusalem's Old City," said Darren Panto, sales and marketing manager for Peltours, a London-based company specialising in Israel, Egypt and Jordan holidays. "Nazareth and Bethlehem are also pretty much out of bounds right now." But every day was different, he said, and the company was monitoring the situation closely.

Tourism is big business in Israel, with 3 million visitors spending about $3.5bn (£2.3bn) annually. At the moment there are over 200,000 people on holiday in Israel.

Travel companies specialising in Israel report that they have had to avoid certain areas in the Holy Land and manoeuvre around closed roads in north Israel. But most have managed to reschedule itineraries rather than calling off tours altogether. There had been few cancellations due to unrest. The Foreign Office is advising travellers on its website that following "serious clashes" between Israelis and Palestinians in several locations, "the potential for further violence remains high", and visitors should keep in touch with developments in the Middle East.

Tourists are specifically warned to avoid Jerusalem's Old City and "unnecessary journeys" within Jerusalem. Also ruled out are the West Bank and Gaza, specifically Bethlehem, Hebron, Nablus, Ramallah and Gaza. "We also advise against travel to Mount Scopus and the Mount of Olives," the Foreign Office adds. But Rafi Caplin, managing director of Middle East specialist Longwood Holidays, said most of the places worst affected in this month's conflict, such as the West Bank and Hebron, attract few holidaymakers.

Amnon Lipzin, director of the Israel Government Tourist Office for UK and Ireland, said the majority of British visitors to Israel at this time of year were heading for Eilat and the Red Sea resorts, far from the trouble. In autumn and winter these areas get more tourists from Britain than from any other country. Holidays to the Dead Sea were still selling and generating inquiries.

There had been some cancellations, slightly adjusted sightseeing schedules, and a slowdown in new reservations, said Mr Lipzin. But he added: "A lot of people have already made all of their arrangements and I assume that most of them will carry them out, despite the fact that they [may] encounter a problem with their itineraries. Even under the present conditions, we do not advise people to cancel or change their plans to visit Israel, including areas under Palestinian authority."

And Mr Caplin said: "I would encourage anyone coming to Eilat not to think twice about it," he said.

For the latest Foreign Office travel advice, visit: www.fco.gov.uk/travel/countryadvice.asp

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