Israel tourism slows down amidst escalating turmoil

By Eric Cortellessa

Tourists visit the Kotel, or the Western Wall, in Jerusalem.
Tourists visit the Kotel, or the Western Wall, in Jerusalem. Photo by Eric Cortellessa.
Israel's tourism rates have taken a sudden drop amidst turmoil.
Israel’s tourism rates have taken a sudden drop amidst turmoil.

Travel to the Middle East is not for the faint hearted and hasn’t been for a long time. But the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has escalated in the last two weeks with a series of sporadic acts of violence, and that is causing some Midwesterners to reassess their travel plans to Israel.

Recent incidents include arsonists, who are suspected to be Jewish extremists, torching the first-grade classroom of one of the only Arabic-Hebrew bilingual schools in Israel and Palestinian assailants killing three rabbis in an Orthodox synagogue in West Jerusalem.

“Considering the fact that social media incitement has been very effective in Jerusalem and outbreaks of violence have been propelled recently because of it, it is a bad time for tourism,” concedes Rachel Ehrenfeld, the founder and CEO of the American Center for Democracy, a nonprofit research organization that focuses on national security.

Adds Omer Eshel, Israel’s director of tourism for the Midwest: “The overall trend has been going down and we can see that the first quarter of 2015 is going to be slower.”

Although Israel remains one of the most visited countries in the world, travel data shows that the number of people who traveled there from the American Midwest dropped 3 percent from January to October, compared with the same time frame in 2013.

Still, recent events are not deterring everyone.

Jeffrey Rebmann, 13, and more than 250 eighth-grade children from the Chicago area are still planning to visit Israel in February. The Community Foundation for Jewish Education, part of the Jewish Federation of Metropolitan Chicago, organizes and pays for the trip, which is called Ta’am Yisrael: A Taste of Israel.

Rebmann’s mother isn’t worried. “Once you are in Israel, you feel very safe. It’s probably safer than the United States,” said Anne Gordon. “And they will be travelling very specifically to where they will be safe.”

The trip itinerary does not include the Gaza Strip, the West Bank or East Jerusalem, she said.

Tourism accounts for a large chuck of Israel’s economy, bringing in $11.42 billion last year alone. More than 3.5 million travelers visited Israel in 2013, 18 percent of whom were American, according to Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics. The city most visited was Jerusalem, with 75 percent of travellers passing through it during their trip.

Many Israeli advocates say the perceived danger of going there is actually overblown and they expect travel to pick up again next year.

The majority of trips that were cancelled were actually postponed, Eshel maintains, pointing to a spike in travel plans for the second quarter of 2015. He also attributed the rise in postponed travel to the fact that 90 percent of trips from the Midwest to Israel is group-oriented.

“We will see what the situation is like, but ultimately I don’t see any reason why Israel will become too dangerous a place for travel,” he said. “When you look at Jerusalem specifically and its history of skirmishes, it recovers extremely fast.”

Ehrenfeld reiterated his point. “Violence is not specific to Israel; it’s everywhere,” she said. “More people are killed in Chicago than in Jerusalem.”