Unrest Strikes New Blow at Jerusalem Tourism

Rina Rozenberg
Rina Rozenberg Kandel
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Jerusalem.Credit: Nick Thompson
Rina Rozenberg
Rina Rozenberg Kandel

“The road to the Mount of Olives is open, you can pass.

That message was sent to a WhatsApp group set up by tour guides working in Jerusalem last week. The messages keep coming, advising tour guides on what routes are safe and whether to change the itinerary at the last minute.

“The last three weeks have been a complicated time to travel in Jerusalem,” said licensed tour guide Ilan Barkai. “We gained a lot of experience from the intifada and know how to get them to places safely. We check with the police and check there’s no stone throwing. Only then do we decide whether to travel to a particular place.”

The tourism industry in Jerusalem was still reeling from the blow inflicted by the summer’s war with Hamas when it was hit by the wave of unrest, including terror attacks, rioting and an assassination attempt, that has gripped the city over the past month.

The disturbances are so fresh that there aren’t any figures to show how big a hit the city’s tourism industry has taken, but it was already suffering when the unrest began several weeks ago.

Hotels in West Jerusalem saw a 36% drop in overnight stays in September compared with the same time last year, down to 105,000, according to the Israel Hotels Association. That’s not much an improvement over the 40% decline while the war was raging.

Hoteliers say the unrest hasn’t reduced overnight stays any further for now.

“Protective Edge brought the hotels to this situation. The escalation of the past few weeks mainly affected individual tourists and they don’t constitute a big part of overnight stays,” said Aryeh Zumer, director of the Jerusalem Hotels Association. “If the situation continues like this, it will be very difficult.”

David Tucker, vice president for Alrov Hotels, which owns the Mamilla and David’s Citadel hotels, said occupancies were down 25% to 30% during the Gaza war and the new unrest is only making things worse. “Tourists ask us when they arrive if it’s a problem to go to certain places,” he said.

Haim Douk, marketing and sales director at Prima Hotels, said he wasn’t seeing a wave of cancellations, as he did during the summer’s Operation Protective Edge.

“The impact of recent events has been less,” he said. “We’re feeling it mainly with last-minute reservations by Israelis that we’re used to having at this time of the year.”

Israelis usually book spots on programs including lectures and tours during November and December, but it’s been different this year, said Douk. “Usually we get a fast response with reservations,” he said. “Now it’s been slow and hesitant.”

Another hotel executive, who asked not to be identified, reported cancellations for 80 rooms for three nights over next weekend in a single Jerusalem hotel. “That was from Israelis, who are supposed to be our more courageous guests,” the executive said. “If it hadn’t been for the disturbances, we would have been returning to business as usual, but it isn’t happening.”

Yad Vashem, the Holocaust memorial that is on virtually every Jerusalem tourist’s itinerary, said it doesn’t have figures for the last weeks, but visits plunged 30% after the start of Protective Edge in July, compared with the same time in 2013. In addition, overseas educators scheduled to attend seminars have canceled.

But tour guides said Jerusalem is less of a security hazard for visitors than news coverage would have you believe.

Mira Bar, a licensed guide, said there was no tourist site in Jerusalem she would avoid on a regular basis but there are areas, like the Old City’s Muslim quarter, where the situation should be monitored before visiting.

“Two weeks ago I decided to avoid several of the Stations of the Cross on the Via Dolorosa in the Muslim Quarter because of the rioting on the Tempe Mount,” she said. “But a week later I decided to take a group because I learned there was no problem. At the open market in the Christian Quarter it’s not a problem and, of course, not in the Jewish Quarter or at the Western Wall.”