Number of visitors has come back up, but not enough
July and August should be peak season for tourism in Israel. From hiking and snorkeling to exploring ancient ruins or camel riding in the desert, Israel has it all. With schools out for summer in the US many families choose to take advantage of Israel’s diverse tourism opportunities and historical offerings including more museums per capita than any other country in the world.
Tourism is one of Israel’s biggest revenue generators bringing in an estimated $11.5 billion in 2013 alone. But since the outbreak of violence between Gaza and Israel last summer tourism has suffered – and local businesses are feeling it.
Located in the center of Jerusalem, along Jaffa Road, the city’s main thoroughfare, is the Holy Bagel. The cafe is no more than a 10 minute walk in either direction from the Old City or the Mahane Yehuda Market – strategically located for tourists and local customers.
“Before the conflict, before the war and everything, we wouldn’t have 5 seconds to stop, or even to go to the bathroom,” Esther Chikly, Holy Bagel’s owner, told The Media Line.
If you walked into the Holy Bagel now though, you’d notice a different scene. At 12:30 p.m. on one of the busiest days of the week, the shop is nearly empty. Two patrons sit at different tables inside as they quietly enjoy their meals in solitude. Two employees serve a customer as Chikly washes dishes in the back.
“In the summer we usually would have four or five people on a shift,” she reminisced. “Dishes would be piled up. We would be prepping boxes and boxes of vegetables and we’d constantly refill them. That’s how busy the store used to be.”
Chikly’s business isn’t the only one suffering. Just two doors down on what used to be a hectic corner is the Coffee Bean.
Two years ago, before the conflict arose, the coffee shop was making $25,000 more than it is now, according to the owner, Ronen Targeman.
“Last July and August business really went down,” Targeman told The Media Line, while sitting at one of the many vacant tables in his store. “I don’t know if it will be good or not this July and August but now in June, it’s not the best.”
Tourists are the Coffee Bean’s main clientele because they recognize the international name, Targeman said. The franchise has more than 1,000 locations around the world so people from all over come in for a little taste of home, but now it’s not the same.
“People are not coming,” Targeman continued. “It’s a big problem. Before at 12:30 all the tables inside would be full and more than half outside too, but here you see the place. And our prices haven’t gone up. Other people have raised their prices but I’ve stayed at the same price.”
Maintaining the price has been a challenge for his business because, like the Holy Bagel, Targeman can’t staff as many employees. He schedules far fewer workers per day which has allowed him to avoid firing anyone so far.
2014 had looked like it was going to be one of the best in the country’s history for the tourism industry, Yaron Burgin, manager and part founder of Abraham Hostel, told The Media Line. But following the conflict the second half of the year was one of the worst for visitor numbers.
“Last summer’s war had a massive impact on tourism in Israel (and) the effect was almost immediate,” Burgin said, noting that although no tourists fled home from the popular backpackers’ hostel, many who had been planning to come cancelled their bookings. The timing of the conflict, during the peak summer months, and the number of weeks it dragged on for hurt tourism worse than previous conflicts, Burgin said.
In particular the closure of Ben Gurion airport for 24 hours – due to the threat from Hamas rockets – was very damaging because it stuck in tourists’ minds months after the summer and made Israel seem more dangerous than it actually is, he explained.
Although a resumption of violence at this time appears unlikely, Burgin suggested that current political pressures are hampering the tourism industry’s recovery. “We are a crazy country and we know it – Israel is always being mentioned in the news and not in a good way. It’s not like it was just last year.” The rise of BDS (the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement), terrorist attacks in Jerusalem and negative headlines regarding Israel’s conduct during Operation Protective Edge have not helped, the backpacker turned manager added.
The damage from the conflict on the numbers of visitors to Israel was confirmed by Pini Shani, the director of the Overseas Department at the Israeli Tourism Ministry. Tourism in 2013 did very well despite the year coming only a short time after the outbreak of Operation Cast Lead, a previous round of fighting between Hamas and Israel. This year on the other hand, following last summer’s Operation Protective Edge, has not been so sanguine, Shani told The Media Line.
Partly this was due to the length of the fighting during the most recent confrontation with Hamas, Shani said, but also it was because of outside factors. The recession in Russia, a key tourist country, reduced visitor numbers. As has the current instability in the region and the infamy of the Islamic State. Some people are thinking “this is not a good time to visit the Middle East,” Shani concluded.
But this did not leave him pessimistic: “We believe 2016 will be a good year,” he said. Although budget restraints have held the Ministry of Tourism back a number of advertising campaigns and initiatives have been launched to try encourage visitors to return to Israel. Chief among them is the scheduling of Ryanair flights directly from three cities in eastern Europe to Eilat, scheduled to start in the next few months.
The possibility of flights directly to the beach resort town from as little as $35 will bring tourist numbers back up – or at least that is the hope of Shani and his colleagues.
Robert Swift contributed to this article.