For Many, Israel Is Geopolitical Tourist Destination

Edwin Black Investigative Journalist
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For a hard-core segment of travelers to Jerusalem, when the sun sets at the Sabbath, the magic in the air is not just the serene image of a peaceful dusk in an enchanted land. It is the empowering knowledge that the sun still shines on a Jewish State surrounded by fiery military and diplomatic turmoil. Israel remains a nation determined to survive and preserve its sense of magnetic amazement. In the minds of many, a visit to Israel is more than just a vacation. It is a geopolitical destination. Traveling to and enjoying Israel makes a statement to the world and to history. It reflects the steeled determination to be happy and fulfilled in one of the most treasured places on earth, despite a virtual siege around every corner.

When in Israel, especially in Jerusalem, everything about your tourism choices is political — which hotel you select, which taxi driver you hire, which bagel you buy, which restaurant you dine at, what fascination you experience, what memories you return home with. Are you buying a half pound of za’atar in Jerusalem’s teeming Jewish market at Machena Yehuda or at the stone-ensconced spice kiosks that line the time-polished lanes of the Old City? Or do you try both?

Anti-Israel sentiment abounds at the café tables of the Ottoman-era American Colony Hotel in East Jerusalem, while fierce loyalty to the Jewish State is detected in every corner of the modern David Citadel Hotel. Visitors book their rooms accordingly and create their own comfort zones in the respective lobbies.

Like everything else in the Jewish State, Israel’s tourism industry — that is, its hotels, restaurants, amusements, and visitor services — has achieved a modern miracle. Despite wars and pressures, the nation has honed its travel experience to rival the best in the world. Elegant, constantly upgrading hotels combine with a robust service and physical infrastructure attractive to any visitor. Exciting restaurants, where both ethnic and modern cuisines operate at the culinary apex, cater to all tastes and budgets. Breathtaking vistas in close proximity offer magnificent desert mountains, frothing Mediterranean shores and beckoning hills. Everywhere, one feels the irresistible lure of ancient history and religious authenticity.

Year to year, more than three million tourists visit Israel. This excludes so-called  “day visitors,” that is, travelers who visit for the day but do not spend 24 hours in the country. Day Visitors include cruise passengers, sightseers crossing the Egyptian border, and airline employee stopovers.

The geo-political dynamic impacts Christian and as well as Jewish tourists. Tourism officials speculate that as of the end of 2015, approximately half its visitors were Christian. From some countries, such as Italy and Poland, the overwhelming majority are not Jewish.

Hard-core tourists to Israel — and indeed many others — are barely deterred from travel during times of high tension. Tourism trend watchers estimate that throughout most of this century, some 90 percent of first-time visitors came for sightseeing and leisure, pilgrimage, or family visits. In 2012, in the wake of Operation Pillar of Defense, with some 4,000 rockets hurtling daily from Gaza, Israeli hotels experienced an initial 10 to 20 percent cancellation rate, but the numbers quickly recovered. In 2014, after Operation Protective Edge and with the advent of the protective Iron Dome, tourism once again bounced back.

Part of Israel’s long-term tourism strategy is not only to recover existing American and European support that may go flat, but to develop new markets over the horizon. Israel has spent years stimulating tourism from India, which now seems to be a major source of new visitors. Back in 2012, Indian Tourism Minister Subodh Kant Sahai was hosted. Sahai was so pleased, he declared, “Nearly every Indian wants to come and visit Jerusalem.” Last year, in 2015, the influential Travel Agents Federation of India held their annual conference in Israel. More than two-thirds of Indian tourists rely upon professional travel agents. Israel’s tourism office is headed by a gregarious Israeli Druze, Hassan Madeh. He says that in 2009 only 20,000 Indians visited. But by 2014, the number had jumped to 35,000. Last year, some 40,000 Indian tourists arrived. The numbers are expected to grow by 10 to 20 percent annually.

Israel is also eying big jumps in tourism from China, Indoneia, and various African nations. Despite the recent diplomatic kerfuffle caused when the Israeli Foreign Ministry blocked Indonesian Foreign Minister Retno Marsudi from visiting Ramallah because she stated she would bypass Jerusalem, Israeli tourism officials expect Indonesian tourism to continue its increase. In 2014, around 26,700 Indonesians arrived in Israel, and that number will soon catapult. While Israel and Indonesia enjoy no formal diplomatic relations, a vibrant trade relationship does exist, and Israeli diplomats are quietly negotiating with Jakarta on a range of bilateral issues.

After Turkey downed a Russian jet at the Syrian border, and after terrorists exploded a passenger plane over the Sinai, tens of thousands of Russian tourists diverted to Israeli destinations. Weekly flights suddenly multiplied, Russian-language advertising was quickly purchased, and many hoteliers are right now reaping the rewards.

The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction movement has been able to score little to zero success in dissuading personal travel to Israel. This became evident when BDS was unable to block a master stroke by tourism officials, placing a $55,000 carte blanche Israel travel gift in every “swag bag” at the recent Academy Awards. Many people are beginning to understand that the tourism sector is a bedrock of peaceful Jewish-Arab co-existence. People from both communities work diligently, side-by-side, hour-to-hour, at all levels of the industry, from the kitchen to the front desk to the management suite. Tourism accounts for at least 6 percent of the Israeli economy. Some estimate that tourism supports or helps support fully 200,000 jobs, mainly in hotels. Hence, the fruits of Israeli tourism nourish all sectors of Israeli society, albeit not at an equal speed or volume, as Arab towns complain that they have not yet rebounded because of the unrest in their localities.

The fact that some hotels are reporting fewer bed nigts can be misconstrued. Alternative lodging modalities, such as Airbnb have caught on in Israel. Airbnb currently offers a range of more than 300 accommodations from spare rooms to luxury villas. That means Israeli hotels must compete both with each other and with spare rooms and flat rentals.

Both in times of peace and — even more so — in times of war, tourism is a vital component of Israel’s strategy for survival, and the fiber of its connective tissue to the rest of the world. The Jewish State’s durable supporters know this intrinsically. With equal determination, they not only stand up for Israel, but also fly in for Israel. Indeed, the two are synonymous.

Edwin Black is the author of IBM and the Holocaust, and a syndicated columnist who travels extensively. He can be found at www.edwinblack.com.