Israel’s tourism industry was on a growth curve in 2005 and the beginning of this year, but the recently ended conflict has emptied hotels and hurt this major economic sector.
“Our estimates are that reservations from the US are down by 20 percent and reservations from Europe are down 15 percent. They are our two main sources of tourists,” said Jonathan Pulik, spokesman for Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.
“But our advice to holidaymakers is, ‘If you have plans to come, come. It is business as usual south of Haifa,” he added, referring to Israel’s third biggest city, which has suffered a number of rocket attacks.
The 34-day conflict began on 12 July after the armed wing of Hezbollah, a Lebanese political party, captured two Israeli soldiers. Israel responded with an extensive military offensive and an air, land and sea blockade of Lebanon to prevent supplies from reaching the militia, while Hezbollah fired thousands of rockets into northern Israel.
A cessation of hostilities between Israel and Hezbollah came into force on Monday morning following the unanimous approval of UN Security Council Resolution (UNSCR) 1701 on 11 August, and ensuing approvals by the Lebanese and Israeli governments. For many people on both sides, however, it remains to be seen whether the cessation will hold out and bring a genuine end to violence.
In 2005, Israel hosted more than 1.9 million tourists, a 27 percent increase from 2004, according to Israeli government statistics. Last year, tourism was worth US $4.7 billion, with US $2.5 billion generated by foreign tourists and the rest by Israelis on holiday.
This was part of an upward trend since the end of the second Intifada, which lasted from 2000 to early 2005, and the ministry predicted 2006 would see a further increase to 2.4 million tourists. But the war in the north of the country has clouded this optimistic outlook.
Issak Shavit is the manager of Vered Hagalil, a popular holiday resort on a farm located in Galilee in northern Israel, 18 km north of Tiberius. His hotel, overlooking the Mount of Beatitudes, can accommodate 60 guests and is full every summer. This is usually his most profitable time, but now the hotel lies empty, with cancellations flooding in from overseas and within Israel.
“At first we tried to remain open, but after the first few rockets fell close to the hotel all of the guests left. They were landing only a mile away,” Shavit said.
In cancellations alone, Shavit said, he has lost US $113,300. “And that is excluding the damage done to the possibility of future bookings and the fact that our stables and restaurant are closed,” he said.
Shavit’s family, who live even further north, have moved to central Israel to stay with family. Shavit believes Israelis who cancelled vacations in the north are also staying in central or southern Israel.
Meanwhile, business is booming in the southern Red Sea resort city of Eilat. Elinor Chayoun, a spokesperson for the Hilton Eilat, estimated that 10 to 15 percent of current bookings have come from persons displaced from the north, to whom the hotel is offering a reduced rate as an expression of solidarity.
“For some guests Eilat is an alternate location for a holiday that was already booked in the northern part of Israel. For others it is a ‘shelter’ destination,” Chayoun said.
The ministry’s Pulik said the Israeli government has agreed to compensate hoteliers and businesses involved in tourism in the affected areas of Israel’s north. The government will compensate businesses for the difference between this year’s and last year’s revenues, he said.
The ministry has already asked for two million shekels (US $455,000) to promote tourism in the northern region, Pulik said.
Even in Jerusalem, which might seem a logical alternative destination for people originally bound for the north, the Old City is relatively quiet, and it is not just hoteliers who are affected.
“It is like it was during the second Intifada,” said the owner of a carpet shop in the Muslim Quarter, who did not want to be named.
“We had a very good time around Easter,” he said, peering into the empty street. “I sold 25 carpets and we were happy to be making money and to see people back here. It was better than it has been for five years. But now… as soon as something good happens something else pushes us back down again. And everyone is so scared. It is very sad.”
The Western Wall area in Jerusalem’s Old City is relatively quiet, but not completely devoid of tourists.
Nili Herskovitz, a religious Jew, came to Israel with her family of seven from New York, and she says that the troubles in the north have not affected their holiday plans in any way.
“I have been coming here for many years, since I was 18,” she said. “I think the problem is that people outside Israel see the problem in a disproportionate way… Many people are not up to date and don’t realise that this is cyclical. This is nothing new.”
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions