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Going South?
by Judy Lash Balint
January 19, 2003

Israeli media hype would have you believe that thousands of Israelis are planning on going south for the duration of the US-Iraq war. Banner headlines blare that hotels at the Dead Sea and Eilat have full reservation rosters for the end of January into February.

But it's impossible to find any hard evidence that this is in fact the case. Everyone from the Eilat Hotel Association to travel agents to the general managers of the largest resort hotels deny that there's any noticeable bump in reservation levels for the next six weeks.

Aron Dekel, longtime director of the Eilat Hotel Association, doesn't believe there will be a war. Dax, as he is affectionately known, remembers the Gulf War when there was 100 percent occupancy for most of the period when scuds fell on the Tel Aviv area.

"This time a 60-70 percent occupancy figure would surprise all of us down here," he says. There are 25,000 beds in Eilat, and reservations for January-February of this year stand at only 30-35 percent. These days, it's mostly Israelis who make up Eilat's tourists, and the economic situation has severely impacted the domestic market.

Dax does acknowledge that there might be some "private deals" Israeli travel agents might have made with the hotels for wartime packages, but he hasn't heard about it over the grapevine, he says.

Over at the Hilton Royal Beach, a secretary to the general manager is fielding media calls. Ms. Barsheshet crisply notes that "we don't feel anything down here," about any expected influx of fleeing Tel Avivians. Much of the hotel's business is from conventions and conferences, and there have been a few cancellations, Barhsheshet admits. But business is down all over, she notes.

Travel agents are doing their best to capitalize on fears of an Iraqi attack, however. "When the Scuds start to Fall..." says the headline on one half page ad from one Tel Aviv company, above listings of Eilat and Dead Sea deals.

Even the Yesha Council of settlements is getting in on the act. Based on the experience of the 1991 Gulf War, council members are convinced that Iraqi missiles will not target the territories. So, the council has put together a list of bed-and-breakfasts, guesthouses, and field schools that will be made available to residents of the center of the country should war break out.

So far, some 8,000 beds have been registered for the operation. Places like the Eshel Hashomron Hotel in Ariel, the midrasha (religious school) in Shavei Shomron, Kedumim and Elon Moreh,
bed-and-breakfasts in family homes in the Jordan Rift Valley, Ofra, Alon Shvut and others. Bulletproof buses will be provided for those who must get in to the cities to work.

Along with a place of shelter and accommodations, Yesha leaders are hoping that the short stays will provide a window into their lives for Israelis who have been afraid to travel to the territories for the past two years of war.

YESHA council spokesman, Yehoshua Mor Yosef says: "People will have to choose what they are most frightened of, Saddam's chemical missiles or Arafat's terrorists. The fact is that in the Gulf War people came to stay with their relatives in Yesha."

Others might be enticed to go abroad--but even here, Raffi Cohen of Jerusalem's TAG Travel agency says the only noticeable difference in reservations for the next few months is that people are requesting tickets that are more flexible.

Some tour operators, like World Travel Center, are offering packages to nearby safe zones such as Crete and Cyprus, including charter flights and self-catering apartments. But they haven't been mobbed with takers.

In an informal and unscientific survey on the Tel Aviv beachfront this week, residents seemed to fall into two categories. People like Oded Zicherman, a young furniture salesman, who remembers spending time in a sealed room as a teenager during the Gulf War, says he's staying put "because you can't keep running away from reality." Ada Assayo, a grandmother wheeling one of her grandsons in a stroller, admits that if she had the money she would go to Eilat. "But I'd have a hard time sitting there enjoying myself if Scuds were falling on my neighbors back home."