All we are saying, is give peace a chance

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 19 November, 1994, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 19 November, 1994, 12:00am

ON the cover of the Touring Map of Israel, the outline of the country, along with its borders with Lebanon, Syria, Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, have been fashioned into the shape of a dove, with wings spread and olive branch at its beak - the universal symbol for peace.

Peace has become the major selling point of tourism in Israel. With recent accords with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) and Jordan, and the likelihood of similar deals with Syria and Lebanon within the next six months, officials are banking on the relative new-found stability in the region leading to a surge in visitors.

And with the beginning of direct flights from Hong Kong to Israel by the national carrier El Al, they are hoping a significant number will come from East and Southeast Asia.

El Al and the country's Ministry of Tourism plan to market Israel as a major stopping-over point of travel between East Asia and Europe. 'We cannot ignore the Far East,' says Yeduha Shen, director of the public relations and operations department for the Ministry of Tourism. 'The growing economies of these countries and the increasing wealth of people present us with a golden opportunity.

'We want to increase the number of visitors to Israel and a significant amount of that increase we hope will be from the Far East.' There is no doubting the attractions of Israel; a tiny country about the same size as the state of New Jersey or half the size of Australia's Tasmania. The diversity of such a compact place is staggering.

Within its borders (you can drive from Eilat on its southern border with Egypt to the Lebanese border in the north in five hours. Driving across the country takes less than two hours) is an array of scenery, history, ancient and biblical mythology that boggles the mind.

Couple this with a modern infrastructure, an efficiently run tourism industry, and the growing opportunities to visit other countries in the region. One would think it could hardly fail.

But, of course, there is one significant obstacle.

Mr Shen calls it a perceived danger. A case of bad press. 'It is a matter of rectifying the image of Israel as a country at war. Sure we have problems and there is still a long way to go before all our problems are solved, but now the peace process has started, it cannot stop.' Despite the terrorism, the random (and decreasing) attacks by extremists, Israel is a safe country to visit, Mr Shen contends - less dangerous than New York or most cities in the US.

Street crime in the towns and cities in the country is low, and although at times it seems that just about every second person in the country carries a gun, a visitor rarely feels intimidated.

In fact, the country's intense security works toward making a visitor feel surprisingly safe.

And if the increase in tourism over the last few years is anything to go by, then Mr Shen and his colleagues are starting to get the message across. This year, officials are estimating that about 2.25 million people will visit, and by 2000, they say, 3.5 million people will arrive in Israel.

One of the most significant rises in visitors has come from East Asia. In 1993, 23,500 visitors were from what the ministry labels the 'Far East'. Although not large in terms of the total number of tourists, it represents a 41 per cent increase over 1992 - after the Commonwealth of Independent States and Romania, the highest increase.

Most of the visitors to Israel from East Asia were Koreans and Japanese, accounting for well over 90 per cent of all arrivals.

With El Al now linking East Asia directly with Israel, the region will continue as one the highest growth areas for tourists, tourism officials say.

Another perception to be overcome, according to Paul Manor, liaison officer with the public relations department of the Ministry of Tourism, is that most people who come to Israel do so as a pilgrimage.

Given that, the interest of East and Southeast Asian visitors in visiting Israel would be minimal.

Although a significant number of visitors (24 per cent in 1993, according Ministry figures), did so as a pilgrimage, and 90 per cent of visitors were either Jewish of Christian, Mr Manor says the majority came to Israel for leisure and sight-seeing. A large number also visited for business and conventions.

'We need to show that Israel has so many attractions that visitors do not necessarily need to have religious links to the country.

'That is why we are pushing the country in East Asia as an alternative route on the way to Europe. People can arrive here and get a taste of the Middle East before travelling on to Europe, which is only a few hours away.' 'Hong Kong people, especially younger people, are becoming more adventurous,' says a local tour agent. 'When they are offered what is to them a completely new place to visit that has easy access, I am sure numbers will grow.' 'Peace is the engine that will drive tourism, it is up to us to let people in East Asia know that the peace process is working and cannot be reversed and that Israel is a safe and extremely fascinating place to visit,' Mr Shen says.

The El Al flight between Hong Hong and Israel is an arduous 15 hours, but an El Al spokesman says that flying time could be cut by three hours once the airline gains rights to fly over the Horn of Africa.

At the moment, the airline flies to Israel over the international waters of the Red Sea.