With 10-20 new blazes everyday and an occasional salvo of rockets, the area of Israel adjacent to the Gaza Strip might look like a war zone, but officially it’s not considered as such and that’s created a lose-lose situation for the local tourism industry.
Farmers, whose fields and orchards have been damaged by flames ignited by incendiary kites and balloons flying in from Gaza, are entitled to compensation from the Israel Tax Authority. But other businesses, including tourism-related enterprises and restaurants, lack such entitlements, even though they have seen business dry up since the attacks began about 100 days ago.
“Tourism here is completely dead,” said Gadi Yarkoni, the head of the Eshkol Regional Council. “When we looked into how business was doing for small hotels and restaurants in the area, we found it had all but disappeared. The events we planned to lure tourism have also been affected.”
He said the council had invested 2 million shekels ($550,000) in three events at Park Eshkol in the last few weeks – one was cancelled altogether and two posted heavy losses because of low ticket sales.
Since Hamas activists have launched their arson campaign, some 30,000 dunams (7,500 acres) have gone up in flames as a result of more than 1,000 fires. In spite of the government’s efforts to stop it, including a decision last week to close the Kerem Shalom crossing with Gaza for all but basic needs, the attacks have continued.
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The tax authority is accepting damage claims from local farmers. To date, 120 such claims have been filed for damage done to 6,000 dunams of burned farmland, for 10 million to 12 million shekels worth of damage.
That’s small compared to the 25,000 claims filed during Operation protective Edge in 2014, but at that time any and all business south of Ashkelon were entitled to apply.
The figure for claims right now is preliminary and a final assessment will only be made after the harvest period, when actual losses can be measured.
For local tourism-related businesses, the damage from the arson has been indirect and therefore isn’t considered something a business can make a claim for.
Apart from the danger of visiting the areas, the smoke from the blazes discourages tourists from outdoor activities and in many cases the forests and groves they would ordinarily visit have been blackened and destroyed. The loss of these areas is likely to weigh on tourism for years to come.
“For lost hotel visits, you can claim for just a single week in May when they were firing mortars art us,” said Yarkoni. “For the other days of kite terror, they [the tax authority] don’t pay compensation even if you’ve suffered a big drop in tourism.”
On Sunday, the cabinet made a small contribution to alleviating the area’s distress, voting a 2 million shekel allocation to fund community events for children and youth.