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BRAVING THE VIOLENCE MOST VISTORS TO ISRAEL ARE STICKING BY THEIR PLANS

By Published on .

For weeks, Liron and Naomi Golden Petrushka have been making plans for a three- to four-week trip to visit family in Israel, Liron's native land.

The Chicago computer company VP and his financial planner wife of five years are still planning to leave March 24 despite a U.S. State Department travel warning issued Feb. 25 for East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

That warning followed the deaths of at least 30 people at a Hebron mosque that day; further violence flared last week.

"As a person who grew up there, I'm not concerned at all," said Mr. Petrushka, who made the reservations just before the mosque attack. "Most of the riots are going on in the territories, and I'm not going to be there at all."

The couple met in Israel in 1986, when she was a volunteer for the Israel Defense Forces (working in food and inventory support services) and he was an officer in charge of her area. The 27-year-olds have visited every 11/2 to two years since their marriage and this time plan to go to Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and the Sinai Peninsula to visit relatives and celebrate Passover.

But Mrs. Petrushka is more worried than her husband.

"It obviously concerns me. I'm more nervous than he is, definitely," she said. "But I've been there before when there were problems. I'm concerned, but I'm not changing plans."

Concerns like hers have prompted the Israel Ministry of Tourism to consider boosting the $3.5 million it spends annually to attract Americans (another $4 million is spent in Europe). Tourism revenue for Israel last year climbed 10% to $2.6 billion; a record 1.96 million tourists visited, up 8%.

The tourism ministry's New York office received more than 100 calls inquiring about traveler safety after the Hebron shooting, a spokesman said.

El Al Israel Airlines' 13 weekly non-stop flights out of the U.S. have been full.

"We have not experienced anything out of the ordinary," a spokeswoman said.

The violence comes as Israel prepares for the important holy seasons of Passover and Easter. So far, airlines, travel agents and the government report the trouble has had little impact on bookings.

"We know that there is a little slowdown in reservations for Easter and Passover, and there were a very small number of cancellations," said Orly Doron, director of foreign press for the tourism ministry. "There were also groups that were planning to arrive with a certain number [of travelers] and came with a smaller group ... and we very much hope that Easter and Passover will not be damaged."

Mr. Doron confirmed an ad budget increase is "very likely" and a U.S. campaign addressing the violence issue is possible. That would benefit AC&R, New York, which started handling advertising in Europe, Japan and the U.S. at the first of the year.

However, Daniel Multer, director of marketing and promotions for the Israel Ministry of Tourism, North America, said recent events should not affect a campaign breaking in April.

Mr. Multer wouldn't reveal the focus of the new campaign. But there had to have been sighs of relief among officials that the last print and radio schedule from previous agency Biederman, Kelly & Shaffer ended in January. Those ads, tagged "Hope to see you soon. Love Israel," spoke of "the promise of peace" and "what a glorious time to be here."

The negligible impact on tourism to date is attributed to the region's strong pull on experienced travelers, who visit family or travel for religious reasons. First-time leisure travelers who might be more skittish usually don't arrive in large numbers until spring and summer.

"People who travel to the Middle East are a savvy, sophisticated bunch of travelers," said Natalie Intrater, owner of Discovery Travel Center, Chevy Chase, Md., and a board member with the American Society of Travel Agents. "Those that go frequently are kind of used to the upheaval."

Perillo Tours, Woodcliff Lake, N.J., also received calls expressing concern but no cancellations of its May Italy-Israel Holy Land trip, said VP Stephen Perillo.

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