Gaza Fighting Won't Stop Birthright, but Other Tourists Wary of Visiting Israel

Itineraries on the free Taglit have been adjusted for security situation, but not a single participant has canceled.

Michal Fattal

The year 2014 was gearing up to be the best ever in Israel’s history for incoming tourism, with estimates of arrivals climbing 10% from last year’s 2.96 million. In a few short days, however, Operation Protective Edge has put an end to that.

The steepest drop in occupancy rates have been in the south, which has borne the brunt of Hamas missiles, although Ashkelon’s hotels have been compensated in part of foreign journalists who coming to cover the fighting taking the place of vacationers is. The hospitality sector in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where rockets attacks are also frequent, has also taken a big hit.

“There were a lot of cancellations in Tel Aviv. Last weekend the occupancy rate in our two hotels averaged out to 75%, at a time of the year when we are usually full. This week the occupancy rate will only be 70%,” said Shai Asia, executive vice president of Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn Hotels Israel. “Many people have simply decided not to come to Israel.”

The story in Jerusalem is similar. Asia said the company’s hotels there were at 80% occupancy, at a time when everything is usually fully booked. “The problem for now is there are no new reservations. Everything has stopped. It’s the same for everyone,” he said, adding that the chain has pulled an advertising campaign that was to have begun next week.

The number of travellers passing through Ben-Gurion Airport -- both foreigners arriving and Israelis going abroad -- was up 18.5% in the first six months of the year to 6.7 million as the onset of Open Skies added new routes and lowered prices while Tel Aviv was basking in the image as an international go-to-destination. But the kidnapping and killing of the three Israeli teenagers and the launch of Operation Protective Edge began just as the peak season was getting under way.

At the Isrotel chain, with guests have been checking out early of its Tel Aviv properties and new ones simply not arriving, said Nahum Kara, vice president for marketing and sales. He said the hotels are far below the 90% occupancy they had been planning on.

“Until the first siren in Tel Aviv, everything was normal. The day after the first siren, a few tourists left the hotels here and there, but a lot fewer than during Operation Pillar of Defense,” said Eli Ziv, director of the Tel Aviv Hotel Association, referring to Israel’s November 2012 military operation in the Gaza Strip. “I remember that after Pillar of Defense there was a massive departure after the first siren, so relative to that were pleasantly surprised. The great majority of people stayed and did not shorten their vacations.”

The problem, Ziv said, echoing his colleagues, is that the cancellations have started — first a few, then more, mainly for the next few weeks. For later dates, there have been few cancellations --so far. Some tourists have asked to postpone their reservations for a few weeks, expecting things to quiet down again, he said. Occupancy rates this weekend at his hotels were 67% in Tel Aviv, compared with an average of 77%.

The real question in evaluating the damage to tourism is how long Operation Protective Edge will continue. Ziv said Israelis will return to the hotels as soon as the situation calms down -- and probably in even larger numbers -- but foreign tourism typically takes more than six months to recover, he said.

Meanwhile, of the some 3,200 Jews aged 18 to 26 from 10 different countries are currently touring Israel with Birthright groups, not a single participant has asked to shorten their trip on account of the security situation, Birthright Israel said. Officials attributed this to the instructions it has given to all participants to call their parents every day.

Organizers have changed itineraries, however, to keep them away from the south and other areas considered dangerous.

“The number of cancellations is much smaller than could have been expected,” said Birthright CEO Gidi Mark, who put it at only around 5%, compared with 3% on average overall. “Those who are here now feel it is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see how Israel really looks.”

A few days ago a ship carrying 800 French youth-movement members arrived in Israel. “The teens are happy, but we get calls from worried parents, and there are also a few parents who said they’re coming on Sunday to take their children home,” said Amos Hermon, CEO of the Jewish Agency’s Israel Experience.