May 19, 2019

Violence casts shadow on Israeli tourism

Random violence and knifings have become a daily occurrence in Israel, and as Passover approaches, the terror is leading some Jews to adjust their plans for visiting the Holy Land for the holiday — or cancel them altogether.

That’s been the observation of Orit Topf, CEO of the travel agency World Express Travel in Tarzana. She said, “People are calling with concerns because the State Department issued a travel warning not to travel to Israel and the Middle East. People are checking to see what their cancellation options are, and no new bookings are coming in.”

Tourism is a big deal for Israel at this time of year. In 2015, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism expected about 130,000 visitors to travel to the Jewish state for Passover and Easter. (Pesach begins this year on the evening of April 22.)

Unfortunately, business has taken a dive, Topf said, since Operation Protective Edge, the Israeli military operation against Hamas-ruled Gaza in 2014. 

“The problem is that we still didn’t recover from that,” she said. “We were seeing a little bit of an increase and then this happened. It’s very hard. It’s one thing after another.” 

According to the latest statistics from the Israel Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 3.3 million people visited the Holy Land in 2014, down 8 percent from the record-setting year before. Numbers did drop immediately after Operation Protective Edge, but they bounced back a year later. According to the Jerusalem Post online edition, 948,000 visitors stayed in Israeli hotels last October compared with 818,000 in October 2014. 

In light of current circumstances, Topf said she’s adding security guards to her group tours, which she didn’t have before. She also monitors tours every day and checks itineraries to make sure the roads the groups will be traveling on are safe.  

“There is a lot of adjustment down on the ground, especially in Jerusalem,” she said. “There are parts of the Old City that you have to avoid. You can’t go in the Arab market or certain archeological digs under the Muslim Quarter. Most people want to go to the holy sites, but you are limited with how far you can go in the Old City.” 

Another local travel agent, Sam Kroll, owner of Melrose Travel, said that while he hasn’t noticed a significant change with his Israel bookings, the families he books tours for are changing their habits when they get to Israel.

“They’re not touring a lot by foot like they usually do,” Kroll said. “They’re cutting down on shopping and going to markets. I spoke to a family who said they are going to the Old City but not going to be doing as much shopping.”

Camila Seta, the Israel Ministry of Tourism’s director of public relations for the U.S. Western Region, said the decline in travel is nowhere near where it was two summers ago: “We see that people are still traveling to Israel and that it’s safe for tourists to be there. Violence is occurring in places where tourists aren’t going.”

That said, she did suggest some guidelines for visitors to protect themselves. Seta said that it’s no different than traveling to anywhere else in the world — always know where you’re going and stay alert. 

“We perceive it to be more dangerous than it is because the violence is highlighted in the media. I live in Los Angeles, and you couldn’t pay me enough to walk around the streets of downtown at 4 a.m. by myself. But I would walk around Tel Aviv, Eilat or Jerusalem at night,” she said.

Noam Matas, general manager of America Israel Travel in Calabasas, books tours to destinations around Israel, and he said it’s best to go on an organized tour when visiting.

“It means that when you arrive, someone is waiting for you. You’re going into places that are safe. The tour guides are getting updates if something happens. They don’t go to places that are considered dangerous for tourists,” he said. “We never had any person say they didn’t feel safe. They say they had no issues whatsoever and don’t know what the media is talking about.” 

On the Passover resort side, David Walles of Eddie’s Kosher Travel said he’s actually seen an upswing in business this year. He reported being at 90 percent capacity at four out of six hotels in Galilee, the Dead Sea, Netanya, the Judean Hills, Kinneret and Jerusalem. 

“We don’t see any downturn,” he said. “On the contrary, bookings are stronger than they were this time last year.”

Because attacks are unpredictable, Walles said there is nothing that can really be done. He just advised that tourists follow through with their plans to visit Israel for Passover and not give in to fear. 

“They shouldn’t be scared now, and they should never be scared,” he said. “Israel is one of the safest places in the world. There is terrible violence there but people are still driving there and walking the streets every day. And Israel is doing its absolute best. Once they know how to handle the incitement, it’ll come to an end.”