Tourism in Israel Likely Casualty of Lone-wolf Unrest

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Christian pilgrims hold candles at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the ceremony of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem's Old City, April 14, 2012.
Christian pilgrims hold candles at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre during the ceremony of the Holy Fire in Jerusalem's Old City, April 14, 2012.Credit: AP

The recent wave of terror attacks in Israel has taken a toll on hotel and travel bookings for early next year, industry representatives report this week. Particularly affected, they say, are travel agencies and hotels that rely on Christian pilgrimage tours – a key component of incoming tourism to Israel.

“We’re seeing a slowdown of 10-15 percent in bookings for the winter months,” says Yossi Fattel, general manager of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association.

Hardly any trips were called off in recent weeks at the height of the wave of stabbing attacks and car rammings that has engulfed Israel. Industry representatives attribute this seeming indifference to heightened security threats to financial factors: Tourists who had chosen to cancel reservations at the last minute would have paid hefty penalty fees or risked losing their deposits.

“We’ve had some cancellations this month but nothing hysterical,” reports Ala’a Afifi, head of the incoming tourism division at Nazarene Tours, a large tour operator headquartered in Nazareth that specializes in Christian pilgrimage tours. “Our main concern is looking ahead at the coming months. Usually, we get bookings three to six months in advance, and what we’re seeing is a very big drop compared with the usual number of reservations we get at this time of year.”

Afifi attributed the downturn, which appeared sure to affect the peak Easter holiday season, not so much to the recent spate of violence in Israel but to heightened tensions in the Middle East overall. “People hear something bad happened in the Sinai, and then they don’t want to come to Israel because it all looks the same from where they are,” he says. “They prefer to wait until things calm down in the region before making a booking.”

The recent violence, he says, is not expected to have much of an effect on bookings for Christmas, which in any case is not as critical a time of year for the industry as Easter. “Reservations for Christmas are a bit down, but nothing major,” he says. “Most people anyway prefer spending the Christmas holiday at home with their families rather than traveling.”

The Israeli tourism industry has yet to recover from the fallout of the war in Gaza in summer 2014, says Yehuda Zafrani, director of incoming tourism at Ophir Tours, one of the largest tour operators in the country.  “Until July 2014, there was a feeling that we were about to break a record of 4 million tourists a year,” he says. “That obviously hasn’t happened, and we’re still not back to where we were before the war. “

Based on his experience, he says, it usually takes the industry a full year to recover from an event like a full-blown war. “The recent spate of knifings will probably only have a short-term effect,” speculates Zafrani, “but it definitely doesn’t help things. Clearly, 2015 has been a bad year for Israeli tourism.”

That assessment is borne out by the latest figures published by the Israeli Tourism Ministry. In the first 10 months of the year, according to these government figures, 2.4 million tourists entered Israel – a drop of 4 percent compared with the same period last year.

The Jerusalem Gold Hotel, which relies heavily on Christian tour groups, is reporting many cancellations amid tensions in the city. “In November and December, half of our bookings were cancelled,” says Ariela Schmida-Doron, the owner of the 11-story hotel located at the city entrance. “Looking ahead to 2016 and 2017, we’re hardly seeing any bookings.”

At the Olive Tree Hotel in Jerusalem, located on the border of the Arab and Jewish parts of the city, the situation is not as bleak, but general manager Shalom Uman cautions: “It’s still too early to rejoice.”

Guests have been reluctant to cancel reservations in recent weeks, he says, because they would not have received refunds at such short notice. “But looking ahead to March, April and May, people seem a lot more hesitant to make bookings. Right now, we’re seeing a 30 percent drop in reservations for these months.”

Aryeh Zomer, head of the Jerusalem Hotel Association, says his organization has been encouraging all those who have already made reservations to sit tight. “We let them know that they still have time to cancel if they need to, and there’s no reason to act right now,” he says.

Experience has taught him, he says, that this, too, will pass. “I’m always optimistic,” says Zomer. “It comes from more than 2,000 years of operating in this region.”

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