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Optimistic mood boosts travel to Israel


JERUSALEM -- An "I got stoned in Gaza" T-shirt hung on a back wall of a souvenir shop in Old Jerusalem.

It was a popular item several years ago when only a few determined travelers came here, ignoring headlines about the Palestinian uprising in Israeli-occupied territories.

This year, the hottest-selling T-shirt has only one word -- "Peace." It is sold throughout the country, in stalls near the ancient Western Wall, by hawkers at the Garden of Gethsemane and in the souvenir shops of Bethlehem.

The omnipresent peace message is a sign of the times despite violence in the country, and is underlined by the fact that there are plenty of tourists to buy the shirts.

Close to 2 million people, including pilgrims going to the Holy Land's most revered sights and Europeans heading to the Mediterranean and Red Sea beaches, visited Israel by the end of 1992, according to Israel Government Tourist Office figures. That's an 80 percent increase over 1991 when the Persian Gulf war kept away all but the most intrepid travelers.

The T-shirts reflect the mood here as speculation about Middle East peace talks appears in the news as often as incidences of violence in the Gaza Strip and West Bank.

"Unfortunately, people are sort of accustomed to the fact that there's always something happening in the world," said Eileen Hart, Isram World travel company's vice president of marketing. Isram is the largest tour operator bringing American travelers to Israel.

Taking no chances, however, the Ministry of Tourism plans to spend $36 million in promotional programs abroad in 1993, a 70 percent increase over 1992.

Officials hope the number of visitors in 1993 will exceed the previous records set in 1987. It's a part of the economy that Israel can't afford to lose. By the end of 1992, visitors left behind $2 billion.

Confidence in the country's tourism industry has prompted a hotel building boom. Holiday Inn opens its first hotel in Israel, the Crowne Plaza-Tel Aviv, in January. Other hotels that opened in December include Radisson's Colony in Tel Aviv and the Princess, a huge, luxury resort in Eilat. Several hotels are going up in Eilat and scheduled to open in 1993. The Ramon Inn in Mitzpe Ramon is a new modestly priced desert inn designed to attract nature lovers.

Several factors have kept the tourists coming this year. "Prospects of peace are real. The new government has a strong focus dealing with economic growth and domestic needs," said Dan Multer, director of marketing and promotions for the Israel Government Tourist Office. "And people want vacations that have more substance."

There is an increasing number of non-Jewish visitors from North nTC America -- presently 60 percent are Jewish. "There is more dialogue between the Vatican and Israel, and there is more optimism about the possibility of the Pope visiting Israel in the next year or two," Mr. Multer said.

"Tourism is a wonderful bridge to peace," he said. "That's always been the case and it will never change."

Meanwhile, the winding alleys within the old city's medieval walls are crowded with travelers. Tour buses make frequent trips across the West Bank to Bethlehem and to the ancient ruins at Masada next to the Dead Sea.

Tel Aviv and Eilat's beaches are crowded, and the biblical towns by the Sea of Galilee, where Jesus preached, are once again attracting pilgrims.

At the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, one of the most venerated buildings on earth, Christians pray at the slab on which Jesus was anointed before he was buried. They enter the building in silence and kneel to kiss the cold stone.

And at Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial, they openly weep as they read the 5,000 names of the Jewish communities in Europe and North Africa that were wiped out by Nazis. The towns, written in Hebrew and the native languages, are carved into the limestone walls of the $12 million Valley of the Destroyed Communities.

At the Hall of Names, which displays a horrifyingly long list of all known Holocaust victims, a mother and daughter from Brooklyn, N.Y., clung to each other and cried. The trip was a college graduation gift from the mother.

"We could have gone to the Caribbean," said the mother, "but this was more important."

IF YOU GO . . .

State Department Travel Warnings: The Department of State continues to advise U.S. citizens to avoid travel to the West Bank and Gaza Strip. Americans should avoid demonstrations and protest activities. For the latest State Department updates about travel in Israel, call (202) 647-5225. In Jerusalem, call the U.S. Consulate General, 253-288 and in Tel Aviv, 517-4338.

Information: For more information about attractions, contact the Israel Ministry of Tourism, 350 5th Ave., New York, N.Y. 10118; or call (212) 560-0600.

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