‘Please come back,’ Israel tells tourists

Linda Gradstein, The Media Line

Robin and Jon Sirkin were preparing to celebrate their son Eitan’s bar mitzvah in Jerusalem in late September. There was a “Dr. Who” theme, and an ice-cream bar for the reception at the synagogue after the services. As part of the celebrations, Robin’s brother, sister, aunt and cousin were planning to make their first trip to Israel. She booked a trip to southern Israel and a meal at one of Jerusalem’s most expensive restaurants for 15 people.

Three weeks ago, just after the cease-fire was declared between Israel and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip, they all cancelled their trips. Sirkin, who moved to Israel from Cleveland three years ago with their four children, said she tried to convince them that the cease-fire would hold, but to no avail.

“It’s devastating and heartbreaking and feels unsupportive,” Sirkin said. “I think they’re overreacting, but we have a different sense of security here.”

She said they held off telling their son that his relatives had cancelled, hoping that as the big day he approached he would be more excited about the ceremony and the party, and less disappointed.

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“He was a little sad, but he’s trying not to focus on that,” she said.

The Sirkins are not alone. Mark Feldman, CEO of Ziontours, says that the seven weeks of fighting between Israel and Hamas over the summer has devastated tourism for the rest of the year, except for the Jewish holidays this month, and Christmas. Feldman said they lost about 2,000 bookings, and most of the time waived the cancellation fees.

“Tourism for the rest of 2014 simply doesn’t exist,” Feldman said. “Now we’re looking toward 2015, and hoping the government will begin to lay the seeds to allow tourism to begin to come back.”

He blames the media, at least partially, for the sharp drop in arrivals.

“It’s a psychological issue — the media was talking about war and missiles and those images have to be erased,” he said. “Now there is a chance for the media to do stories about the Jewish holidays and more peaceful events, and we hope that will begin to bring tourists back.”

Until the fighting with Hamas began, 2014 was set to be a banner year for tourism. Last year, the total number of visitors to Israel was 3.6 million, and this year they were aiming for 3.8 million. Now the total for the year is expected to be down by 20 to 30 percent, says Israel’s Tourism Minister Uzi Landau. He said that this year, Israel opened two new high-end hotels, the Waldorf-Astoria in Jerusalem and the Ritz Carlton in Herzliya.

“The loss from incoming tourism will cost us two billion Israeli shekels (more than $570 million)”Landau said. “During the military operation we went into a campaign for domestic tourism called “precisely now, a vacation in Israel,” and the response was excellent.”

 

He said in previous conflicts with Hamas in Gaza, it took tourism 3 to 6 months to recover, and he expected that to happen again this time.

For the first time this summer, many airlines including all U.S. airlines suspended flights to Israel for 24 to 36 hours after a rocket fired from Gaza landed near the airport. Landau said the flight suspension made a difficult situation worse.

“I must confess that I don’t understand why this decision came into place,” Landau told The Media Line. “Ben Gurion International Airport, even after the decision, continued to host airlines like British Airways and Iberia Airlines. Thank God, it didn’t take more than 36 hours to straighten things out between high-level US and Israeli officials.

Landau said Israel is putting a new emphasis on FIT (Free Independent Tourists) rather than on the traditional group tours, both Jewish and Christian, which have traditionally visited the Holy Land.

“We are trying to boost this type of tourism,” Landau told journalists. “It will take a number of years until this type of tourism will boost, but we already see the first signs of that.”

He said the individual tourists may stay in Israel longer than a group, and spend more money, as hotel accommodations are more expensive for individuals.

In between bar mitzvah preparations, Robin Sirkin says her relatives say they want to reschedule their trip for the spring. But she remains skeptical.

“Until I see them walk off the plane, I won’t believe they’re really coming,” she said.