ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 149

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Israel-Hamas war ices hopes for post-pandemic tourism rebound

Foreign tourism, particularly Christian pilgrimage, grinds to a halt due to the war instead of bouncing back with the mitigation of COVID-19 threat

This picture taken on January 31, 2024 shows a view of the almost empty Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth in northern Israel. Nazareth's landmark basilica is empty, the surrounding restaurants, stores and market that thrive on pilgrims are closed, while hotels in the Old City have been shut for months. (Nicolas Garcia/AFP)
This picture taken on January 31, 2024 shows a view of the almost empty Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth in northern Israel. Nazareth's landmark basilica is empty, the surrounding restaurants, stores and market that thrive on pilgrims are closed, while hotels in the Old City have been shut for months. (Nicolas Garcia/AFP)

In Israel’s biblical city of Nazareth, the basilica is empty, restaurants and shops that usually thrive on Christian pilgrims are closed, and many hotels have been shut for months.

The Gaza war that began after the Hamas attack of October 7 has plunged the country’s tourism industry into a fresh crisis, just as it had started to recover from the COVID pandemic.

“We felt that the influx of tourists was starting to be good at the end of September, the beginning of October,” said Marwa Taha Abu Rani, manager of the Fauzi Azar hostel in the Old City.

With the outbreak of war, future bookings were canceled, she told AFP about her guesthouse, part of the Abraham Hostel group and located in a grand 19th-century home.

“We aren’t working at all,” she said. “There’s no one.”

The hostel’s tall arched windows overlook the marketplace and the Basilica of the Annunciation, where Catholics believe the Angel Gabriel told Mary she would give birth to Jesus.

A woman stands among pigeons at the square outside the Roman Catholic Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth in northern Israel on January 31, 2024. Nazareth’s landmark basilica is empty, the surrounding restaurants, stores and market that thrive on pilgrims are closed, while hotels in the Old City have been shut for months. (Nicolas Garcia/AFP)

The economy of Nazareth, set in the hills of northern Israel, is heavily dependent on Christian pilgrims, making it a bellwether for Israel’s tourism industry on the whole.

Even during what is the low season on the annual tourism calendar, the city has been unusually empty.

Tourism accounts for about three percent of Israel’s economy and employs around 200,000 Israelis directly, according to the Tourism Ministry.

The country had been projected to draw 5.5 million visitors in 2023, a million more than 2019’s record high, it added.

October 7 changed all that.

Hamas’s onslaught on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of around 1,200 people in Israel, most of them civilians, and the kidnapping of 253 others.

Among those killed by Hamas on October 7 were Bilha and Yakovi Inon, the elderly parents of Abraham Hostel co-founder Maoz Inon, who had lived on Kibbutz Netiv Ha’asara near the Gaza border.

Hamas health authorities claim over 27,000 people in Gaza have been killed in the ensuing war launched by Israel to remove the terror group from power and free the hostages. The figures cannot be confirmed and do not differentiate between combatants and civilians. Israel says it has killed some 10,000 fighters.

Foreign tourism to Israel evaporated immediately after the October 7 attack — accelerated by many airlines canceling flights to Israel — which has put tour guides, hotel staff, bus drivers and others out of work.

Internal tourism is also down, with many avoiding trips to verdant north amid incessant rocket attacks by the Hezbollah terror group in Lebanon, and sporadic attacks from Syria against the Golan Heights.

The southern resort city of Eilat has been targeted by drones and missiles launched by Yemen’s Houthi rebels, and the western Negev, normally packed with tourists visiting for the resplendent blooms of anemones in the spring, remains scarred by the attacks and the nearby war.

Only around three million people had visited Israel by the end of 2023, the ministry said.

Many hotels now receive government funding to house Israelis displaced by the war — from areas near Gaza and along the northern border with Lebanon.

But smaller businesses like Fauzi Azar have been left in the lurch.

The sector’s new crisis sparked by the war could not have come at a worse time, said Peleg Lewi, a senior adviser to Israel’s tourism minister.

“2023 was the year that we recovered from the COVID [pandemic] and it was supposed to be the most successful year in Israel’s history,” he said.

Israel’s previous major wars — in 2006 against Hezbollah and in 2014 against Hamas — each lasted less than two months and their economic impact was limited, said Michel Strawczynski, an economist at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Now Israel has been engaged in fighting for over four months with both terrorist groups and has called up hundreds of thousands of reservists.

No end appears in sight anytime soon. Israeli leaders say attaining the war’s objectives could take a year.

Strawczynski said this war’s economic impact will “clearly” be higher, largely because of the loss of foreign tourism.

In the fourth quarter of last year, Israel’s GDP fell by about three percent, he said.

“Concerning 2024, things are completely dependent on how long this war will be, and also whether there will be a deeper confrontation in the north,” he said.

The current estimation at Israel’s Tourism Ministry is that — even if fighting in Gaza subsides and there is no war with Hezbollah — 2024 as a whole already appears “a bit lost,” said Lewi.

“If everything goes okay, we see the end of 2024 coming back to normality,” he said.

In the basilica in Nazareth, one of the caretakers, Friar Wojciech Boloz, said he hopes the usual crowds will soon come back.

“We feel a little bit empty without the pilgrims,” he said.

Tourists and pilgrims not only fuel the local economy, Boloz said. “They give their life to this church.”

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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