In quiet times, Israel draws over 3 million foreign visitors a year, with tourism employing about 6 percent of the Israeli workforce. But every few years, a security situation sends that number spiraling downward. During Operation Protective Edge, which lasted from July 8 to August 26, 2014, the number of arrivals fell by a third.
It took the industry a year to bounce back when suddenly, this October, Israel was hit with a new wave of violence, in the form of stabbing, shooting and car ramming attacks by Palestinians targeting Israeli Jews that have killed 11 people and wounded 153. But despite the higher death toll (only seven civilians within Israel were killed during the 2014 conflict with Gaza) tourism has yet to suffer a significant blow, according to industry insiders.
“I think one reason is that international media reports of the current violence are less pronounced than in the past,” Pini Shani, head of marketing for Israel’s Tourism Ministry, told The Times of Israel.
Despite complaints among many Israelis that media outlets around the world were ignoring or downplaying the spate of stabbings, this is paradoxically good for tourism, says Shani.
“And I think it’s good for the State of Israel as well. Our numbers for October have been fine. For tourists already in Israel, very few canceled their trips. We have seen a slowdown in new reservations, but it’s nothing dramatic.”
Hannah Blustin, CEO of Pomegranate Travel, which specializes in high-end custom tours for the well-heeled, says that out of 200 clients set to visit in October, only one canceled, and that was someone scheduled to arrive on a cruise ship that decided to make a sudden change in itinerary.
“We’ve had conversations with people and tweaked itineraries. For instance, we still take people to the Old City of Jerusalem but some tours will focus more heavily on the Jewish Quarter and spend less time in the Arab Market, the Mount of Olives or the Garden of Gethsemane,” she said.
“We’ve had clients who specifically wanted to go to Temple Mount [a flashpoint of tension in recent months] so we advised them that it’s not a good idea and took them to overlooks over the Temple Mount instead.”
Vika Kanar, a publicist who brought 50 foreign journalists to Israel for Tel Aviv Fashion Week in October, said she similarly only had one cancellation, although she did have to conduct last-minute negotiations.
“A few of the journalists said they would only come if they didn’t have to spend time in Jerusalem. So we found them hotels in Tel Aviv. It’s ironic because the week before the violence broke out it was impossible to book a hotel room in Jerusalem.”
Another unexpected outcome is reported by at least one local tour guide.
“The industry is really fragmented,” says Joel Haber, who operates Fun Joel’s Israel Tours. He said he’s heard of fellow tour guides experiencing cancellations but “personally, I have more work because people who would normally self-guide want to make sure they’re not going anywhere they shouldn’t.”
By contrast, last summer, during Israel’s conflict with Gaza, Haber did not work for 50 days straight.
“The big question is what happens moving forward. If this wave of violence dies out, things will be fine. But if it becomes protracted–who knows? The truth is you’re still safer here than in most major Western cities.”
A cloud over Nazareth
“The worst-hit cities have been Jerusalem and Nazareth, a senior source within the tourism industry told The Times of Israel. “Maybe because Jerusalem has had the most attacks and because of the riots in Nazareth, people are afraid to go there.”
“There are some cancellations and a serious slowdown nationwide, in the tens of percentage points in new hotel reservations. It’s still better than after Protective Edge but my sense is tourists are postponing their plans, waiting to see what happens.”
“It’s hard to be optimistic but I’m not pessimistic either,” the source said.
Over in Nazareth, Israel’s largest majority-Arab city, the mood is decidedly less cheery.
Zayd Rizik, owner and manager of the Villa Nazareth Hotel, near the city’s most important Christian sites, has seen occupancy plummet from 60 percent to 20 percent for the months of November and December.
“We’ve had many Christian groups cancel. They’re scared to come.”
In terms of Israelis, who are not his main customers, the situation is worse. Rizik said he had some Jewish tourists in September but none at all in October.
”They’re either scared to come to Arab cities or boycotting us,” he speculated.
Rizik describes the situation as “devastating” and says he has had to lay off some of his workers. “It’s a vicious cycle. Every two years there’s an operation or something and we see a drop in tourism.”
Two weeks ago, he recalled, “people were feeling down and frustrated and didn’t know what to do. They were angry. But when things get quiet, when the general feeling in the Arab sector is okay, people start to feel hopeful.”
And there is a ray of light.
“Our reservations for next year  haven’t canceled yet. The number is growing slowly. So there’s still hope for next year.”
A plea for coexistence
On Monday, the Israel Hotel Association held a conference in Nazareth calling for coexistence between Israeli Jews and Arabs in the hotel, hospital and general business sector. It was attended by mayors, hoteliers and hospital directors, both Jewish and Arab, from the country’s north, including the mayors of Nazareth, Tiberias, Haifa, Afula, Kafr Kanna, Kafr Bara, Bustan al-Marj, Iksal, Acre and others.
Pnina Shalev, a spokeswoman for the Israel Hotel Association, told The Times of Israel that “mayors from Arab municipalities got up one after the other and said in no uncertain terms, to my surprise, that they want peace and they want to live together and it’s a pity there are no religious leaders here” at the conference.
One of these mayors was Mujahad Awada, of Kafr Kanna, a town of about 20,000 that attracts hundreds of thousands of Christian pilgrims a year because it is identified in Christian tradition as Cana of the Galilee.
“I was born in 1948,” he told the conference-goers, “with the establishment of the State of Israel. I studied and lived with Jews. This is our joint fate and this is true coexistence. I want this message to go out to the country, to the entire Middle East and the world: It is possible and necessary for Jews and Arabs to live together.”
Azaldin Amara, Awada’s acting deputy mayor, also attended the conference.
He told The Times of Israel that Kafr Kanna has seen maybe a 10-20 percent reduction in visitors in recent weeks, “much like the rest of the country.” Amara also said he attended the conference to make a statement for coexistence between Arabs and Jews.
“There is no problem between Arabs and Jews,” he said. “We are friends. We live together, we work together. The problem is with politicians.”
Despite the fact that youth from Kafr Kanna clashed with Israeli police last month, Amara stresses that residents are largely law-abiding citizens.
“We all follow the laws of the government and the state,” he says.
If there is an economic problem in Kafr Kanna, he says, it derives from 67 years of systematic discrimination by the Israeli government.
“It’s not Jews who discriminate against us, but the government, which doesn’t develop our infrastructure, or build community centers and soccer fields, so that young people will have something to do. We present the plans but they say they have no money. The government needs to take care of Kafr Kanna — to give us land where we can build, invest in education, in sports for youth. Things are hard from that point of view, but from an economic point of view, people are working, we have 15 percent unemployment.”
Amara says that Jews, Arabs and tourists will all find a “warm home” in Kafr Kanna. He encourages everyone to come and says he hopes for an uptick in tourism in December.
“Our village is hospitable to strangers. This is what we learned from our fathers and grandfathers, that you must honor your guests.”
As for Hannah Blustin, the luxury tour operator, she says there is a silver lining to hosting tourists in times of conflict.
“It pushes people to explore more and dig deeper and ask their guides more challenging questions about the situation. People want to engage.”