As relations between Turkey and Israel fray, Israelis have been canceling vacations booked there in droves, tourism companies say. Their favorite alternative venues are Turkey's nemesis, Greece, and Cyprus. "Some people are opting for Barcelona instead," says Arkia's new CEO, Nir Dagan.
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Late last week, Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan accused Israel of massacring Palestinians in the Gaza Strip and carrying out war crimes worse than those of Hitler and the Nazis. His statements prompted Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to complain to the U.S. Secretary of State, John Kerry, that Erdogan's comments were anti-Semitic and desecrated the memory of the Holocaust. Kerry's spokeswoman Jen Psaki called Erdogan's statements "offensive and wrong."
Ankara’s mayor, Melih Gokcek, poured oil on the flames by claiming that Israel was perpetrating a genocide in Gaza “10 times worse than that conducted by Hitler." After these statements, Israel recalled its diplomats from Turkey, leaving behind a skeleton staff.
Erdogan's statement was followed by violent anti-Israeli protests in Ankara, Istanbul and Izmir. On Friday, the police used tear gas and water cannons to quell protesters throwing rocks at the Israeli embassy in Istanbul.
Many seem to feel that this isn't an apt backdrop for a family vacation. "The amount of cancellations has been absolutely insane," says Israir CEO Uri Sirkis, adding that if Turkey had been a share traded on a stock market, it would have crashed. And this is the height of the summer vacation season, he said.
Both airlines have been contending with another difficulty – a lot of pilots have been called up for reserve duty. "We've had about 30 people called up," notes Sirkis.
Arkia's Dagan says that some flight routes have been changed because of the rocket threat, which can extend flight times, and other delays have been caused. He also says that bookings for future flights are down, but is confident that orders will pick up when the situation improves.
Turkey had been Israel's closest ally in the region until Operation Cast Lead in 2008, which soured relations, culminating in a diplomatic breakdown following the 2010 Israeli naval raid on the Mavi Marmara (one of the boats in a flotilla that attempted to breach the Israeli naval blockade of the Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip).
As long as Israel-Turkey relations were close, hundreds of thousands of Israelis holidayed in Turkey each year. In 2008, half a million Israelis visited Turkey (out of an Israeli population of less than 8 million).
But as relations soured, Israelis began choosing alternative destinations. It was just in the summer of 2013 that travel agents felt Israeli tourism to Turkey had begun to pick up again. It hasn't lasted.