Even Before Terror Attacks, Jewish-Israeli Tourists Were Avoiding Turkey

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Tourists visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque, near the site of Tuesday's explosion, in the historic Sultanahmet district in Istanbul, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016.
Tourists visit the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, better known as the Blue Mosque, near the site of Tuesday's explosion, in the historic Sultanahmet district in Istanbul, Thursday, Jan. 14, 2016.Credit: AP

Jewish Israelis accounted for a disproportionate number of the victims in Saturday’s suicide bombing in Istanbul, but they are otherwise a rare breed of tourist in Turkey these days.

Israelis used to travel in droves to Turkey, especially to coastal resorts like Antalya. But travel plunged after the May 2010 raid by Israeli commandoes on the Turkish ship Mavi Marmara, which was trying to break the blockade of Gaza. Diplomatic relations grew tense and tourism dived, never quite recovering.

The record year for Israelis visiting Turkey was 2008, when some 540,000 arrived. But the year after the Mavi Marmara incident, the number plummeted to just 75,000. It has climbed since then, but last year the number of Israeli tourist arrivals was only 224,000 – well under half the record number.

The Israelis who do travel to Turkey tend to be Arabs, with the rest of the seats on flights taken by businesspeople and travelers making connections to other destinations through Istanbul. Although diplomatic ties remain fraught, until last year bilateral trade was growing.

“Since the crisis in diplomatic relations between Israel and Turkey, and the drop in demand from [Israeli] Jews, demand has moved to the Arab sector, so that most of the traffic to the destination now is Israeli Arabs,” said Galit Zakai, marketing manager for Eshet Tours.

Ronen Carasso, deputy CEO for marketing at the ISSTA travel agency, termed Istanbul a marginal destination for Israelis these days. But even formerly popular Turkish resorts were having a tough time trying to lure Israeli beach vacationers, too, even after Turkey’s downing of a Russian fighter jet last November led to the same kind of diplomatic and tourism crisis with Russia.

“The group that was hit in the deadly attack [on Saturday] was relatively unusual. Most of the increase we’ve been seeing to Turkey from Israel has been to Antalya,” Zakai said. “After the drop in demand in Russian tourism to Turkey, we thought shrinking demand and low prices would bring [more Israelis]. But the low prices didn’t influence Israelis – at least in the short run.”

From a low base line, the number of Israeli travelers to Turkey climbed 26% in 2014 and 19% in 2015. But Ziv Rozen, CEO of the travel site Gulliver, said the growth trajectory was over, even as Jerusalem and Ankara have been seeking to end their diplomatic spat.

Turkey has suffered a wave of terror attacks in recent months. The Istanbul attack, which killed three Israelis, was the fourth suicide bombing in Turkey since the beginning of 2016, and came just a few days after a bombing in the capital, Ankara, killed at least 37 people.

“If there aren’t further developments, I guess there won’t be any further cancellations of reservations. But it doesn’t seem that the numbers will develop like we’ve seen in recent years,” Rozen said.

For Israelis who have booked flights to Turkey, two Turkish airlines serving Israel have special offers: Budget carrier Pegasus said that for the first two days of this week, it would accept cancellations without any charges. Turkish Airlines, meanwhile, said it would allow cancellations till March 24 or a change of dates, as long as it is in the same class, without any charge.

However, under Israeli law, consumers can’t unilaterally demand their money back because of the security situation in a foreign country, even after Israel yesterday heightened its travel advisory for Turkey, said Ifat Nir-Katz of the law firm Zysman, Aharoni, Gayer & Company.

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