Flights have been canceled, tourist sites have closed and hotels are turning to relief efforts
“I said: ‘What difficulties?’ “, Mason, 67, told the Washington Post. “He explained that Hamas had fired missiles and we soon knew Israel was at war. »
In the days since violence erupts in Israel and Gazamore than 2,600 people were killed and at least 25 U.S. citizens are among the dead. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism is help tourists evacuate. The State Department has exhorted US travelers must “reconsider travel” to Israel and the West Bank and have issued a “do not travel” advisory to the Gaza Strip due to “terrorism, civil unrest and armed conflict.” “The situation in Israel remains dynamic; mortar and rocket attacks can occur without warning,” the department said. posted Tuesday.
Mason says he and his group of about 15 people stayed in their hotel, listening to the thunder fringe from Israel An iron dome system intercepting rockets. They didn’t know what to do next. The country’s tourism infrastructure was going dark.
Léon Avigad, founder of Hotels in Brownsaid there is a moral obligation to help people through the crisis, pointing to a Hebrew saying “kol Israel haverim,” which roughly translates to “all Israelis are friends.”
“Now is not the time to think about financial losses. We need to make sure our people are safe during this time,” Avigad said. “In these difficult times, everyone is helping out, no questions asked. »
Hospitality turns to relief efforts
While Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport remains open, several airlines have canceled flights to Israel. Israeli airline El Al said it will fly Saturday, the Jewish Sabbath, for the first time since 1982 to bring in reservists called into service. Many hotels have closed their doors or turned to relief efforts. Historical sites have also closed their doors such as national parks and nature reserves. Cruise lines canceled their ports of call in Israel while other major carriers disembarked from ports earlier than originally planned.
Until the war, many in the travel sector, including his Minister of Tourism, had been optimistic about the prospects for 2023, even if visitor statistics still lag behind pre-pandemic peaks. Israel only reopened to tourists in January 2022. That year, Israel recorded 2.675 million tourists — about 41 percent less than the 4.55 million visitors in 2019, a record year. In 2019, tourism accounted for 2.6 percent of Israel’s gross domestic profit and 3.8 percent of employment, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.
Some of Jerusalem’s main attractions are also holy sites for several religions. An ancient religious complex, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, contains the al-Aqsa Mosque and the Islamic shrine the Dome of the Rock, all surrounded by retaining walls that once housed the First Jewish Temple. Militant group Hamas cited Israeli violence police raids on the al-Aqsa mosque as part of the justification for his surprise attacks.
Israel Tourism founder Ben Julius, who runs one of the country’s largest travel agencies, said the market only began to see a more drastic recovery from the pandemic in the last six months. This month alone, the agency was expecting around 15,000 tourists, its founder said. Since then, they have had to cancel hundreds of tour reservations.
“The streets were a ghost town,” Mason said of Jerusalem this week. “The stores were not opening. Everyone was shocked, traumatized and tense.
Mason saw the wake of 360,000 reservists – about 4 percent of Israel’s 9.8 million people – who were summoned by the Israeli military to contribute to the war effort.
“Restaurants at the moment… cannot open because their staff has been fully mobilized,” said Inbal Baum, owner of the Israeli gourmet travel company. Delicious Israel. “The waiters, the chefs… they’re all in military gear and fighting across the country.”
The mobilization affected a large part of the hospitality sector, Baum says, from hotel employees to his own staff. Several members of his team left to serve. Since his last check, they’ve all been found, but one has “already lost a lot of friends,” Baum said.
Avigad said it faced the possibility of long-term closure of its hotels. Half of the brand’s 27 hotels, present in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Greece, are closed and could cost the company millions.
For now, his main concern is repurposing hotels that remain open into emergency shelters for people in need. Families, nurses, Israeli Defense Forces and volunteers from outside Israel moved into their rooms.
They have also assigned staff to Greece and Israel to help families and travelers coordinate their travel needs.
“Sometimes people are so panicked that they might not know these things,” Avigad said. “They need help. They need someone to guide them. So we have assigned two officials just to help them with whatever they need.
Uri “Buri” Jérémieowner of the Efendi Hotel and its eponymous restaurant in the northwestern city of Acre, has kept his restaurant open with minimal staff to help stranded tourists, families and essential workers.
“People need food and care during these times,” Jeremias said. “Food can go a long way.”
Like many others in the hospitality industry, Jeremias has spent the last few years rebuilding his business. First there was the pandemic. Then in May 2021, the rioters set fire at his hotel and restaurant, considered symbols of coexistence with a mixed Arab and Jewish the staff, during a wave of violence.
“Unfortunately, Israelis are used to these situations,” said Pini Shani, deputy director general of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and head of its marketing administration.
When the fighting stops, he is confident that tourism can return to “normal” in the country soon after. Perhaps that’s because Israel has a stronger appeal than typical vacation destinations.
“The fact that the religious community, both Christian and Jewish, visits Israel in large numbers gives us the advantage of being able to recover relatively quickly after a crisis,” Shani said.
This is what brought Mason to Israel. To support his journey – an interfaith experience led by Mason, a Baptist pastor, and Jewish rabbi Nancy Kasten – his group partnered with Tours in Mejdi.
This socially responsible travel company takes people to conflict zones and provides context on their complex issues. They often pair groups with two guides representing the conflicting camps. In Northern Ireland, for example, clients travel with a Catholic and Protestant guide. In Washington DC, they are led by a Republican and a Democrat.
On trips to Israel and the Palestinian territories, travelers accompany Israeli and Palestinian guides to “meet refugees, meet soldiers, meet human rights activists,” said Aziz Abu Sarah, 43, an activist. Palestinian pacifist who co-founded Mejdi Tours almost 15 years ago. . “Diplomats, people on the right, people on the left, people for two states, people for one state. »
Sarah previously worked as Executive Director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. When he launched Mejdi, Sarah saw it less as a business opportunity and more as “a new way to engage with Israelis and Palestinians.”
But before he got into activism and eventually tourism, Sarah says he grew up “very anti-peace.”
“I am Palestinian. My brother was killed by Israeli soldiers,” he said. “Maybe 30 years ago I would have celebrated this. But today I can’t because they are my friends. These are people you know.
“We just keep working to fight back.”
Working in a region where conflict threatens, Sarah said Mejdi always had crisis management in place and had plans for crises. He says they carried out six field missions when the violence began, including one involving up to 50 people. As many airlines canceled their flights to Israel, it was no longer possible to take off from Tel Aviv airport. Mejdi organized vehicles to take customers out of range of the rockets.
Some customers stayed in the area and recovered their trip; others returned from Jordan by plane. Mason’s group ended up in Tiberias, an Israeli city on the Sea of Galilee, about 100 miles north of Jerusalem.
Now, all of Mejdi’s tours in Israel and Gaza are canceled at least until the end of the month.
Not all companies have followed suit. Sarah knows of some bands who are still touring – perhaps out of duty to customers (“For some people, it’s also a pilgrimage,” Sarah said) or out of necessity.
“We’ve had three years of covid and now this is happening, and I think a lot of people are wondering, ‘Can we take this financially?’” Sarah said.
Baum knows that feeling. “It’s like we just can’t catch a break,” she said. “You kept getting kicked out, and we keep working to get back up.”
She is not sure how she will continue to pay her staff if the situation remains unstable. Delicious Israel hopes some customers will receive a credit toward a future tour rather than a refund.
Shani said the topic of emergency aid for hospitality businesses is “very complicated”, but said he was “sure the government will find a way to support them”.
Baum doesn’t feel as optimistic.
“A lot of industries are going to need money right now,” she said. “I don’t think tourism is at the top of their list.”