Gaza War Long Over, but Tourists Still Avoiding Israel

Jerusalem synagogue attack reawakens fears of travel; hotel occupancy rates down by a third in October.

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People sit at Ben-Gurion International Airport in a January 5, 2010 file photo.
People sit at Ben-Gurion International Airport in a January 5, 2010 file photo.Credit: Reuters

As winter rears its head, Israel’s tourism sector is still waiting for the country to recover from the tourism slump that began with the 50-day war with Hamas this summer.

“Israel is like a black hole,” a representative of one of the big tourism wholesalers told an Israeli travel agent at a tourism exhibition in London recently. “It’s impossible to market it anywhere in the world right now.”

That view isn’t uncommon in the travel world. Three months have passed since Operation Protective Edge wound down, but unlike the rest of the economy, which rapidly returned to normalcy, tourism remains in the doldrums.

Tamar Luria, who is in charge of foreign tourism in Israel for Ophir Tours, had been trying to organize an introductory tour for key travel agents from France. The tour was being offered for free and was eliciting some interest — until last week’s attack on a synagogue in Jerusalem that killed four worshippers and a policeman.

“They told me they were afraid to come,” said Luria. “That means that we’ve reached the point that it’s not just tourists who are afraid to visit but travel agents, even when they’re not paying. They told us their families wouldn’t let them No one talked about the car killings in France, but the synagogue attack aroused great fears around the world.”

The extent of the downturn was reflected in figures on hotel overnight stays published by the Central Bureau of Statistics yesterday: a 33% decline in October from the same period a year ago.

Eli Ziv, direct of the Tel Aviv Hotels Association, said occupancy rates in the city’s hotels declined to 65% last month, from 88% in October 2013 — and that was only because the Sukkot holiday, which took place in October, increased demand from Israeli visitors.

“In December we’re going to see a decline, to a large extent because of cancellation by groups during Protective Edge,” said Ziv. “We haven’t had any new reservations. January, for now, is also not looking good.”

Compared with previous conflicts, the tourism recovery is taking longer to emerge, said Ziv. He says that’s because Protective Edge was a relatively long war, by the standards of recent years, and because of the terror attacks that have followed it.

Recognizing the extent of the problem, the Tourism Ministry called a meeting of the industry’s top executives last week on how to market travel to Israel in light of the continued security problems. But industry leaders were disappointed that the ministry’s marketing chief, Oren Drori, didn’t attend.

“We are not in a normal period and we’re looking for out-of-the-box solutions,” said Tourism Minster Uzi Landau. “We have to be creative.”

Such remarks disappointed industry executives.

“The Tourism Ministry doesn’t have a contingency plan for what to do if there’s a month-long war or an intifada. It’s zero planning and it’s absurd,” said Maoz Yinon, who is co-owner of the Abraham Hostel in Jerusalem and the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth. “To ask people to pull ideas out of a hat is no way to run tourism policy.”

Amir Halevi, the ministry’s director general, said there are contingency plans, but acknowledged they won’t be effective if there continue to be multiple attacks in a single month or if the security situation deteriorates further.

Every attack sets off phone calls from travel agents overseas to Israeli tourism organizers and hotels.

“We have groups scheduled to come in January to March, but right after the synagogue attack we got frightened emails asking what they should do, to cancel or to wait til the last minute,” said Toni Malul, vice president for Eshet Incoming Tourism. She is promising them full refunds even if they cancel a few days beforehand.

Shai Asia, vice president for Crown Plaza Hotels in Israel, says no marketing campaign can neutralize the effect of terror attacks. “When there’s a perception of insecurity, people won’t come,” said Asia, who just returned from a marketing trip to the United States.

“They won’t take their grandson for a bar mitzvah this summer in Israel because now they’re stabbing people in the streets of Jerusalem,” he said. “On the other hand, we have 30 groups coming in June, so they aren’t giving up on us entirely.”

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