Israel hotels packed, with refugees not tourists

JERUSALEM (Reuters) – There is no room at the inn in central and southern Israel. While many foreign tourists have packed their bags, their rooms have been taken by Israelis from the north fleeing Hizbollah rockets.

“We are afraid. We wanted a break,” said Keren Yaakov, a 32-year-old teacher from the city of Haifa watching her three daughters play in the busy swimming pool of Jerusalem’s Crowne Plaza hotel with other evacuated children.

The hotel, like many others out of the range of Hizbollah’s rockets, is offering discounts to northerners. The mass influx has given its breakfast room the feel of an upmarket soup kitchen, with dozens lining up for juice, bagels and yoghurt.

 

“All the foreign tourists are gone but this hotel is full,” said front office manager Riad Abu-Sbitan, handing out vouchers for Jerusalem zoo to two Orthodox Jewish fathers from the north.

“It’s not like in Lebanon where people are on the streets. Here they are in the hotels,” he added.

A total of 414 people in Lebanon and 42 Israelis have been killed in a conflict that erupted after Hizbollah abducted two Israeli soldiers in a July 12 cross-border raid.

Israel’s bombardment of Lebanon has displaced 750,000 people, while Hizbollah rockets fired at northern Israel, including popular tourist destinations like Tiberias, have prompted thousands to flee a region that is home to one million.

The Red Sea resort of Eilat has been flooded with an extra 120,000 people since the fighting began, according to Israeli media. Some northerners who cannot find a hotel room there are camping on the beach while others take refuge in a local school.

TOURIST HOTLINE

Jonathan Pulik, a tourism ministry spokesman, said Israel did not expect any significant impact from the conflict on visitor numbers, which he said should still reach 2.3-2.4 million in 2006, up from nearly 2 million people in 2005.

Tourism, a key industry in Israel that brought in $2.5 billion in 2005, had surged in the past few years following a steep drop in suicide bombings by Palestinian militants.

“We’ve opened a hot line for foreign tourists. What I’ve told people who plan to come is that it’s business as usual in Jerusalem as well as areas south of Haifa,” Pulik said.

 

Don Bernstein, who runs a gift shop in a narrow street in Jerusalem’s walled Old City, said sales were down as foreigners stayed away even though there were more Israelis than usual.

“It is hurting us at what is supposed to be a busy time of year,” he said, straightening a small painting of Jerusalem in his store decked out with Israeli flags.

The State Department has warned Americans to weigh the risk of travel to Israel. It is hard to find foreigners other than Christian pilgrims at the Western Wall in the Old City, the most holy Jewish site protected by a security cordon.

“This area is safe. I’m never afraid. It’s better to walk here than in Amsterdam,” said Herman Esselink, 53, a Dutch school caretaker praying for peace at the Wall.

Jeff Galasso, 45, a regular visitor to Israel from the Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, Colorado, agreed: “We feel it’s God’s holy city. There is protection here, spiritual covering.”

TOURIST HOTLINE

Jonathan Pulik, a tourism ministry spokesman, said Israel did not expect any significant impact from the conflict on visitor numbers, which he said should still reach 2.3-2.4 million in 2006, up from nearly 2 million people in 2005.

Tourism, a key industry in Israel that brought in $2.5 billion in 2005, had surged in the past few years following a steep drop in suicide bombings by Palestinian militants.

“We’ve opened a hot line for foreign tourists. What I’ve told people who plan to come is that it’s business as usual in Jerusalem as well as areas south of Haifa,” Pulik said.

 

Don Bernstein, who runs a gift shop in a narrow street in Jerusalem’s walled Old City, said sales were down as foreigners stayed away even though there were more Israelis than usual.

“It is hurting us at what is supposed to be a busy time of year,” he said, straightening a small painting of Jerusalem in his store decked out with Israeli flags.

The State Department has warned Americans to weigh the risk of travel to Israel. It is hard to find foreigners other than Christian pilgrims at the Western Wall in the Old City, the most holy Jewish site protected by a security cordon.

“This area is safe. I’m never afraid. It’s better to walk here than in Amsterdam,” said Herman Esselink, 53, a Dutch school caretaker praying for peace at the Wall.

Jeff Galasso, 45, a regular visitor to Israel from the Faith Bible Chapel in Arvada, Colorado, agreed: “We feel it’s God’s holy city. There is protection here, spiritual covering.”

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