Jerusalemites seek solace in Tel Aviv

By Robert Sarner, Canadian Jewish News, Jan. 18, 2001

JERUSALEM - This time, the traffic is moving in the opposite direction. To be sure, it's no migration of the masses but in recent weeks the Big Orange on the coast has proven especially alluring to people in the Holy City. It's a role reversal of sorts from the last time Israel was under siege.

Exactly ten years ago this month, thousands of Tel Aviv residents hightailed it out of town after coming under Iraqi rocket attacks during the Gulf War. With each successive Scud missile that slammed into the city, the exodus intensified. Many people headed to Jerusalem for safety and to calm their nerves.

This time around, in the current conflict with the Palestinians, the tables have turned with Jerusalem in the line of fire while Tel Aviv has largely escaped the violence. For those in the Jerusalem area, (especially in the embattled neighborhood of Gilo), the past three and a half months have been particularly unsettling due to the frequent rioting, shooting attacks and occasional bombings - to say nothing about the debate over the city's future.

Despite their relative proximity to each other, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are worlds apart.

Even during more peaceful times, Tel Aviv has always had a special appeal to residents of the capital. As Israel's center for business, arts, entertainment, fashion and gastronomy, Tel Aviv offers visitors fabulous diversions and a feeling of being "somewhere else," almost as if it were in another country.

Lately, more Jerusalemites than usual have been making the 50-minute drive to Tel Aviv for a much-needed change of scenery. Normally, people in Jerusalem seeking a getaway have many options. But since late September, Palestinian attacks on drivers in the Jerusalem vicinity have made several main roads off-limits for most Israelis. For now at least, the main highway to Tel Aviv remains safe.

A couple of weeks ago, I took my family to Tel Aviv for a few days. It didn't hurt that we were guests of the Dan Hotel that, like every hotel in the country, is hurting terribly from recent events. With its current occupancy rate averaging barely 30 percent, The Dan was eager for any publicity that might help bring back sorely missed tourists.

Since the Palestinian uprising erupted, Israel's tourist industry has taken a beating, suffering massive cancellations from foreign tourists and, to a lesser degree, from Israelis. Until last autumn, Israel was on track for a record year in tourism with more than three million visitors expected. Now it's ailing. In November, for example, tourism arrivals plummeted 58 percent compared to a year earlier.

And the crisis is not over yet. This month, the Association of Travel and Tourist Agencies predicted that tourism to Israel this year will drop by 50 percent compared to 2000. It said the economic consequences of the current situation could be more severe and longer lasting than those caused by the Gulf War in 1991.

During our stay, Tel Aviv showed few outward signs of the present crisis. In contrast to Jerusalem, it's upbeat and exudes an exuberance reflecting its more hedonistic approach to life.

Walking through the streets of the city reveals an urban texture so different from Jerusalem. The atmosphere is more relaxed, more varied, more sensual than the capital. The recent proliferation of cafes and all kinds of eateries further enhances the city's ambience.

It was fun being tourists in Tel Aviv. With its central, beachfront location and beautiful rooms, The Dan was a delight deserving of the plug they hoped to get for their hospitality. We began our tour at the Azrieli Center's observation gallery, savoring its breathtaking view of the entire city from 50 floors up. Back on the ground, the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, hosting several spectacular exhibitions, provided another kind of feast for the eyes. In the old harbor quarter of Jaffa, we enjoyed the Ilana Goor Museum, both the building itself and the art on view.

But sure enough, wouldn't you know it, within hours of returning home to Jerusalem, news broke that Palestinian terrorists had set off bombs inside a bus in Tel Aviv. So much for the different sense of reality that we felt during our stay there.

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