Manhattan Jewish Sentinel

September 23, 2003

Jerusalem hotels start to win back tourists


Things are finally starting to rebound for Israel's tourist industry.

Life had not been easy for hotels in Jerusalem over the last three years of Palestinian violence. After the banner tourism year of the millennium was cut short by the outbreak of the intifada at the end of September 2000, the Israeli tourism industry went into a deep slump. Massive layoffs followed, affecting everyone from hoteliers to taxi drivers to restaurateurs to small-business owners to Israel's national airline, El Al.

But as violence ebbed at the beginning of this summer and Israel supporters tired of putting off long-planned visits to the Jewish state, there was finally some good news on the horizon for Israel's tourism industry.

"Since the 'hudna' has been signed, there has been an awakening of Israel becoming a tourist destination-especially for the Jewish clientele," said Rodney Sanders, the general manager of Jerusalem's Inbal hotel. He was referring to the self-declared cease-fire, or "hudna," that Palestinian terrorist groups announced on June 29.

Now, there appears to be a new sense of determination among tourists-particularly American Jewish ones-not to postpone their visits to Israel any longer.

The results are apparent at the Inbal, one of Jerusalem's most celebrated hotels.

Located in a quiet neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem, the Inbal-formerly known as the Laromme-is both far enough from the city's downtown to guarantee visitors some quiet and a picturesque view, and close enough to some of the city's main attractions to be a perfect walk-to location for visitors.

It is just minutes from the Old City, whose walls it overlooks from the opposite mountain. It is no more than 15 minutes by foot from downtown, and it's even closer to the popular cafes and restaurants of Emek Refaim Street, in the German Colony neighborhood. Adjacent to the five-star hotel is one of Jerusalem's largest public parks, Liberty Bell Park, replete with basketball and soccer courts, a skating rink, picnic areas, an open-air theater and plenty of jungle jims for the children.

The Inbal also is very close to some of Jerusalem's most popular synagogues, including the Anglo-Saxon Tzvi Yisrael, generally known by the name of the street it occupies, Hovevei Zion; Ohel Nehama, which is a Friday night hotspot for the younger set; Shira Hadasha, the new Orthodox egalitarian minyan; and the Great Synagogue, still Jerusalem's favorite performance shul.

For the first time in almost three years, business was brisk this summer as tourists returned to the Inbal in droves. The Inbal is a favorite among return visitors to Israel's capital city-particularly among tourists from America.

The hotel is so American-friendly that when parents come to visit their children who are studying for the year in Israeli yeshivas or seminaries, the children are welcome to stay at the hotel free of charge while their parents are visiting the Inbal.

"Our strength is taking care of our returning guests," Sanders said. The guests return "because of the heimisch atmosphere, because of the staff. The building has a very warm atmosphere to it," he said.

They also come back because-simply put-the Inbal is a great place to stay.

Built in Jerusalem stone to naturally blend in with its surroundings and the mountain on which it sits, the Inbal is architectural singular and striking in its beauty. Each room is beautifully outfitted, some with balconies. Some of the rooms face the hotel's quiet courtyard café; others look out toward the Old City. On clear days, the Jordanian mountains can be seen from the hotel, which is across the street from Jerusalem's famous windmill.

Affordable prices are part of what make the Inbal a natural choice for visitors. Rooms vary by season but can be as low as $150 for a single, $170 for a double and $280 for a suite. There also is an executive suite, a penthouse suite and a presidential suite on the premises. Visiting dignitaries sometimes choose the Inbal as their home abroad, and missions to Israel frequently choose the Inbal.

All prices include an Israeli-style breakfast. Once visitors see the feast the Inbal calls breakfast, they immediately understand why breakfast is the most important meal of the day.

Outside the rooms, the hotel's amenities are typical of Jerusalem's five-star properties. The hotel has a large swimming pool, which is outdoors in the summer and covered and heated during the wintertime. There is an exercise room, sauna and steam room, as well as a full-service beauty salon. The hotel has a well-equipped business center, and rooms are available with high-speed DSL internet connections. The hotel also has a meat restaurant, a dairy restaurant, a breakfast room, a pool restaurant, a lobby lounge, and a café in the courtyard.

More important than the hotel's physical amenities, guests often tell management, are the hotel's activities for visiting families. Most nights Monday through Thursday, a three-piece jazz band plays in the hotel's interior courtyard. Tuesday night is barbeque night, Thursday night is Italian night and every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. the hotel hosts Inbaloona, a kids' club manned by a full-time day-care professional.

The Inbal also is a particularly good place for visitors looking for a traditional Jewish feel. Aside from its view of the Old City, the hotel hosts a sumptuous Friday night dinner and delectable Shabbat day buffet lunch that even attract visitors to the city who are staying at other area hotels.

"They enjoy the ambience of our hotel," Sanders said. "It has a very warm, traditional Jewish flavor to it."

The 20-year-old hotel currently was revamping its entranceway this summer and plans to revamp the rooms are in the works. Sanders says the temporary lull in guests during the height of the Intifada gave the hotel the opportunity to make some improvements without disturbing guests.

As of August, the hotel said it was expecting a sell-out crowd for the autumn holiday season, but it was unclear how the terrorist attacks in early September would affect the autumn tourist season in Israel generally. Observers said much depended on whether the spate of attacks that followed the end of the summer "hudna" were an aberration or the beginning of a new period of violence in the Jewish state.

Even when times are tough, Sanders said being the general manager of the Inbal gives him an opportunity to create an oasis of calm in the midst of Israel's bustling capital.

"Considering that there is a natural hesitancy to come to Israel these days, running a hotel gives me the opportunity to create calm-and to give my guests a more confident feeling when visiting Israel," Sanders said. The manager even gives guests her personal cellphone number in case they have any concerns. He says he gets very few calls.