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Hundreds of American and European tourists arrived in Israel on Thursday morning in a way they haven't for years - by cruise ship.
Greeted by an armada of buses, guides and Tourism Ministry representatives bearing hats proclaiming "Israel Loves You," roughly 800 foreign visitors streamed across the gangplank and onto Israeli soil after the first local docking of an international cruise ship in nearly seven years.
The Amsterdam, a 62,000-ton vessel operated by the Holland America cruise company, was the first foreign cruise liner to drop anchor here since the outbreak of the second intifada, signaling the company's confidence in Israel's political and security situation.
Calling the landing of the Amsterdam "a dream," Associated Marine Agencies official Eitan Ivan said its arrival represented the end of a long recovery process that AMA, a private company that encourages sea traffic to Israel, initiated almost immediately after foreign cruise companies eliminated the country from their itineraries in late 2000.
The real push to persuade Holland America and its competitors to return began with the death of Yasser Arafat in November 2004, Ivan said, and benefited significantly from the active support of the Tourism Ministry.
Amsterdam passengers expressed similar enthusiasm for Holland America's return to the Jewish state, disembarking for daylong tours in numbers described by one crew member as "exceptional."
The 800 tourists - out of a total of 1,200 onboard - climbed onto some 21 buses for destinations including Jerusalem, Bethlehem, the Dead Sea and Masada - a turnout crew members said may not have been matched at any of the Amsterdam's previous stops.
The nine-story cruise ship is nearing the end of Holland America's annual "Around the World" tour, a 105-day journey that started in Miami in January and has so far included stops in South America, Australia, India and Egypt. The ship was scheduled to continue late Thursday to Haifa, where passengers have the option of disembarking for a round of daylong tours in northern Israel before sailing on to Turkey, Greece and Italy.
A two-person package for the Around the World voyage costs $36,000, not including day trips, and passengers' willingness to pay for the tours was evidence, crew members said, of widespread interest in visiting the country.
"It's pretty special to me to be here, because I'm a Christian," said Lora Tucker, a Florida native taking Bus #9 for a tour of Jerusalem and Bethlehem. "I'm planning to walk in the places where Jesus walked."
Company said many regular cruise passengers had expressed pleasure that the Amsterdam would be docking in Ashdod and Haifa after years of bypassing Israel.
The political situation still has an impact on the pleasure cruise, however, with Lester Johnson, an onboard "dance host," reporting grumbling among passengers about the wait for visas to Israel, a process that required up to four hours in line during the ship's journey from Egypt to Ashdod. Three members of the Israel Police flew to Sharm e-Sheik to process visa requests for the more than 1,000 passengers, a police turnout "they could definitely improve," Johnson said.
Two buses of crew members joined passengers in touring southern Israel - a figure that might have been higher if not for the make-up of the ship's crew of 700, several hundred of whom are citizens of Malaysia and Indonesia, countries that don't maintain diplomatic relations with Israel. Visas might have been arranged anyway for them, anyway, Holland America officials said, but most of the crew members chose not to pursue visas because of the ship's short stay in Israel.
The Amsterdam is just the first of a number of cruises scheduled to dock in Ashdod and Haifa in the coming months. A series of sold-out Princess Cruises will anchor in Israel beginning in June, bringing an estimated 13,000 passengers - and some NIS 12 million - into the country. Other companies are "hesitating" about whether to return to Israel, Ivan said.
But while not all the major cruise companies appear to be sold on Israel as a secure travel destination, a clear majority of the Amsterdam's mostly elderly passengers are. "Do you think," asked Mary Lou Wilson, a San Francisco resident traveling with her husband, "that Holland America would bring us to a place where we wouldn't be safe?"