Gaza conflict drags tourism industry down, not out

Gaza conflict drags tourism industry down, not out

Some tour groups have cancelled, but there's no sense of panic in the Israeli travel industry -- yet

Campers at Jerusalem's TLW Hackercamp hunker down in a protected areas as a Red Color incoming missile alert is sounded (Photo credit COurtesy)
Campers at Jerusalem's TLW Hackercamp hunker down in a protected areas as a Red Color incoming missile alert is sounded (Photo credit COurtesy)

The serious flare-up between Israel and Hamas couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time for the tourist industry — the summer vacation high season. Gaza terrorists are firing volleys of missiles that can reach as far as the outskirts of Haifa –making most of Israel a target. As it stands, the only “safe” place to vacation is in the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights, which as of this writing were still out of range — if, that is, anyone is in the mood for a vacation.

Which some Israelis and foreign tourists are not, according to tourism industry officials. Organizations and individuals from abroad have begun canceling, expressing concern about the safety of traveling to Israel at this time after nearly a month of tensions, Gaza rocket fire and Israeli airstrikes.

Even so, Israeli travel officials said there have not been mass cancellations by either groups from abroad or by Israelis, although new bookings for summer vacations by both dropped precipitously this week.

Among those who will not be coming this summer are European tourists who booked trips through TUI, Germany’s largest travel group. In a statement, TUI said that the company was reacting to the current situation in Israel and has cancelled all tours in the country through July 31. Holidaymakers who have booked a TUI tour through Israel in the next three weeks will be contacted. “Those who booked and paid for trips,” the company said, “can postpone or change their travel plans at no extra charge.”

While rocket and missile attacks from Gaza are nothing new for Israel, this week’s escalation hit the tourist industry, sometimes literally. On Monday night, a German cruise ship with 2,700 passengers was struck by debris from a Hamas rocket that was destroyed in mid-air by an Israeli Iron Dome missile. Although the Iron Dome system prevents rockets from exploding on their targets, the shrapnel of those rockets destroyed in mid-air has proven to be a hazardous annoyance in some cases — such as when pieces of the destroyed rocket fell on the deck of the ship, the AIDA Diva.

Frightened passengers sent messages to friends and loved ones via social media, and many commented on the situation on the Facebook page of AIDA Cruises, sponsors of the trip — while others took dramatic video of the event with their smart devices (see video below).

Passengers were never in danger, the company said in a statement, but “small particles were however found on the passenger deck which, based on first assessments by experts, could be from air-defense missiles. We regret that the guests of AIDA Diva witnessed this incident. We assure all our guests that the security of our passengers and crew always has the highest priority for AIDA cruises,” the statement said.

Nearly all European countries, including Germany, have issued travel warnings, advising their citizens to stay at least 40 kilometers away from Gaza, the range most vulnerable to Hamas rocket attacks, as well as from the West Bank and Arab neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Typical was the warning issued Wednesday by Luxembourg, which described the “violent confrontations and riots taking place… in several neighborhoods of Jerusalem, while the operations of the Israeli army and Palestinian security forces continue in the West Bank, particularly in the area of Hebron.”

The warning urges travelers to avoid “getting within 40 km of Gaza and to learn about the situation on the ground before traveling within the West Bank; it is advisable to avoid in particular the city of Halhul, settlements and the Old City of Hebron; exercise particular vigilance near the main checkpoints, Israeli settlements and Palestinian refugee camps; keep away from any peaceful rally and large gatherings of security forces, and to refrain from travel at night; and learn about the location of a shelter and follow the safety authorities of civil protection.”

The United States also issued several travel warnings urging US citizens to be cautious and avoid “areas of unrest.” On Thursday night, the US issued an “emergency warning for US citizens who need help departing the Gaza Strip.” In advance of a possible Israeli ground campaign in Gaza, the State Department urged Americans — including volunteers, teachers, and dual-nationals — to prepare for evacuation.

No time would be good for this, but it’s especially bad for tourism. The summer is high tourist season for visitors from abroad, meaning higher prices, and so there are fewer tourist-class (read: budget) groups coming to Israel at this time of year, said Mizrahi. “You see it in the hotels and destinations, most of the tourists are American, British and French Jews who would probably come here anyway, unless things got really bad.” What industry officials fear, he said, was what could come after the war. “Many of the groups that come here in the winter, especially Christmas, book their spaces months in advance, so if the war goes on for a few more weeks, we could see some of these groups that traditionally come to Israel choose other destinations.”

Israeli airlines El Al and Israir on Wednesday both announced that they would not penalize passengers who wanted to postpone or cancel flights. In a statement, El Al said that “due to the security situation, El Al will allow ticket holders for flights leaving Israel up until Friday, July 18 to cancel their tickets or postpone their departure date for a period no longer than six months without being charged any cancellation fees or flight switching fees. Passengers abroad wishing to come to Israel earlier than their ticket will also not be charged for switching their flights.” Israir, which flies on several routes between Israel and Europe, announced a similar policy. Ben Gurion Airport has remained open, and officials said that operations are continuing normally.

Foreign universities that have campuses and programs in Israel seem to be staying put , as well. On Thursday, Utah-based Brigham Young University, which has a facility on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, said that “students, staff and other Center personnel took shelter for a brief period of time this evening as sirens sounded in Jerusalem warning of missiles headed for the greater Jerusalem area. Several missiles were intercepted over suburbs of Jerusalem by the Iron Dome Israeli Defense Missile System. None of the missiles were aimed towards East Jerusalem where the Center is located. Following a brief, 10 minute, stay in the Center’s shelters, students returned to their normal activities for the evening.”

The BYU statement said, “The area around the Center remains calm and quiet. Students will continue with their regular academic and planned co-curricular activities through Saturday. Decisions regarding activities on Sunday and beyond will be made later by Jerusalem Center administration and security personnel, who continue to monitor security matters closely.”

Among those that regularly come to Israel in the summer are youth missions, including Birthright (Taglit) groups. A spokesperson for Birthright said there have been few cancellations so far, and 90 groups with more than 3,500 participants are still expected this summer. Among the youth groups that have cancelled is the Bnai Brith Youth Organization (BBYO), which nixed two groups that were to have arrived in Israel this week — though the high school kids participating in the month-long tours were already at John F. Kennedy Airport in New York Wednesday, getting ready to board their flights, the Jewish Week reported.

Once in Israel, though, kids — from abroad, or from immigrant communities — tend to “go with the flow,” said Shaiel Yitzchak, director of TLW Hackercamp, which trains kids in the finer points of computer programming, hacking, and developing “geeky but fun” projects in the heart of Jerusalem, which has not been immune from Hamas attacks. While parents have expressed concern, Yitzchak said that they were “used to the drill,” and asked only that the camp take whatever precautions were necessary to ensure their kids’ safety.

Among those precautions, he said, were orders by the Education Ministry to limit outings, like outdoor camping trips, that had been planned for campers. “We’ve been ordered to cancel our campouts, so camping trips will become sleepovers near protected areas in buildings,” said Yitzchak. “But Sderot (next to Gaza) has been living under this threat for almost a decade, and their life doesn’t grind to a halt, so neither will ours. It’s embarrassing to waste the curiosity of a child — or the power of community. These are elemental forces, and we’re privileged to be a part of them.”

Up to now, Israelis themselves are not changing their summer vacation plans in large numbers. According to Moshe Mizrahi, who owns a Tel Aviv-based travel agency, “Israelis are generally immune to warnings, and the main summer destinations in Eilat and the north have not been affected yet, so we don’t expect many cancellations by Israelis.” However, he said, with the IDF set to call up as many as 40,000 reservists, hotels are expecting that at least some of those who reserved rooms will try to cancel or at least postpone their vacations.

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