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To Israel or Bust ...

July 16, 2009 By:
Fredda Sacharow, JE Feature
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Travel to Israel, including a climb up Masada, is hot.

If job-related woes are keeping area residents closer to home these days, one travel agency said that it's not feeling much of a pinch and has particularly continued to book trips to Israel.

"Recession? You can't tell by this office, that's for sure," said Susan Blum, manager of the Israel Department for Gil Travel, which has offices in Philadelphia; Miami; New York; Los Angeles; Chicago; and Boca Raton, Fla.

Blum, who has been arranging trips to the Jewish state for more than three decades, said that she and colleagues have experienced no measurable drop off in Israel-bound travel this year, and requests for next year are piling up steadily.

Although at least three Israel trips planned by synagogue groups for 2009 have been canceled, Blum noted, families are still booking Bar and Bat Mitzvah visits at $4,000 a person, and no individual trips that she knows of have been called off.

At El Al, the Israeli-based airline that carries many of those travelers, official Offer Gat sounded philosophical about the financial hit that his industry is taking.

"Nobody can escape the outcome of the current situation," said Gat, El Al's chief executive officer for North and Central America. "Although Israel is less affected than other international routes, we still feel the decline. Our prospective passengers, many of whom were flying again and again to Israel, have all been affected."

Gat said that business declined around 15 percent in 2009 over 2008 -- a figure he and his colleagues previously saw only during times of war.

Moreover, potential passengers are waiting longer to book trips, sometimes not making final arrangements until a month or two before departure, rather than the more traditional six months.

Gat said there have been no systematic layoffs at El Al. Rather, the airline has responded to the economic crisis by reducing fares in all compartments and offering family plans that give an average 25 percent reduction to children flying with their parents.

In addition, El Al has made it easier for passengers to upgrade from economy and business class to business and first class, and is building more flexibility into its frequent-flyer program, said Gat.

El Al will face competition from US Airways this summer, with the American carrier inaugurating flights between Philadelphia and Tel Aviv as of this week.

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