December 3, 2023


Booking Travel

Israel’s tourism industry goes dark after Hamas attacks

Flights have been canceled, tourist sites have closed and hotels are pivoting to relief efforts

A team of volunteers prepare food for soldiers positioned on the Gaza border area near Sderot on Thursday. (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

Early on Saturday morning, pastor George Mason went down to the lobby of his hotel in Jerusalem to drop off some laundry. He’d arrived in Israel on Oct. 1 to attend a conference in Bethlehem, then host a nine-day tour with the nonprofit group Faith Commons. Back in his room minutes later, he got a call. The staff could no longer take his laundry “due to the difficulties.”

“I said, ‘What difficulties?’” Mason, 67, told The Washington Post. “He explained that Hamas had fired missiles, and before long we knew that Israel was at war.”

In the days since violence erupted in Israel and Gaza, more than 2,600 people have been killed and at least 25 American citizens are among the dead. The Israeli tourism ministry is helping tourists evacuate. The State Department has urged U.S. travelers to “reconsider travel” to Israel and the West Bank and placed a “do not travel” advisory on the Gaza Strip due to “terrorism, civil unrest, and armed conflict.” “The situation in Israel remains dynamic; mortar and rocket fire may take place without warning,” the department posted Tuesday.

Mason says he and his group of about 15 stayed put in their hotel, listening to the thundering bangs of Israel’s Iron Dome system intercepting rockets. They were unsure what to do next. The country’s tourism infrastructure was going dark.

Leon Avigad, founder of Brown Hotels, said there’s a moral obligation to help people navigate the crisis, pointing to a Hebrew saying “kol Israel haverim,” which roughly translates to “all of Israel are friends.”

“This is not a time to think of financial losses. We need to make sure our people are safe during this time,” Avigad said. “In these times of need, everybody just gives a hand — no questions asked.”

Hospitality turns into relief efforts

While Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport remains open, several airlines have cut flights in Israel. Israeli airline El Al said it will fly on Saturday, the Jewish sabbath, for the first time since 1982 to bring in reservists called for duty. Many hotels have shuttered or pivoted to relief efforts. Historic sites have closed, as well 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 scheduled.

Until the war, many in the travel sector, including its tourism minister, had been optimistic for a 2023 outlook, despite visitor statistics still lagging behind pre-pandemic highs. Israel only reopened for tourists in January 2022. That year, Israel recorded 2.675 million tourists — about 41 percent lower 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 top attractions are also holy sites for multiple religions. An ancient religious compound, known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount, contains the al-Aqsa Mosque and Islamic shrine the Dome of the Rock, all within retaining walls that once held the Jewish First Temple. The militant group Hamas has cited violent Israeli police raids on al-Aqsa Mosque as part of the justification for its surprise attacks.

Tourist Israel founder Ben Julius, who runs one of the country’s largest tour agencies, said the market only began seeing a more drastic recovery from the pandemic in the last six months. This month alone, the agency expected around 15,000 tourists, its founder said. They’ve since had to cancel hundreds of tour reservations.

“The streets were a ghost town,” Mason said of Jerusalem this week. “Shops weren’t opening. Everyone was in a state of shock, traumatized and tense.”

Mason was seeing the wake of the roughly 360,000 reservists — about 4 percent of Israel’s 9.8 million population — who’ve been summoned by the Israeli military to help in the war effort.

“Restaurants right now … they can’t open because their staff has been entirely called up,” said Inbal Baum, owner of the Israeli food tour company Delicious Israel. “The wait staff, the chefs … they’re all in their military gear fighting across the country.”

Among Americans killed or missing in Israel: A scholar, a nurse, tourists

The mobilization has impacted much of the hospitality industry, says Baum, from hotel employees to her own staff. Multiple members of her team have gone to serve. Since her last check, they’re all accounted for but one of them has “lost numerous friends already,” Baum said.

Avigad said he is dealing with the potential of a long-term shutdown at his hotels. Half of the brand’s 27 hotels — which operate in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Greece — are closed and could cost the company millions.

Right now, his main concern is readapting the hotels that have remained open into emergency shelter for those in need. Families, nurses, Israel Defense Forces and volunteers from outside of Israel have moved into their rooms.

They have also allocated personnel in Greece and Israel to help families and travelers coordinate travel needs.

“Sometimes people are in such a panic, they might not know these things,” Avigad said. “They need help. They need someone to guide them. So we dedicated two officials just to assist them in whatever they need.”

Uri “Buri” Jeremias, owner of the Efendi Hotel and his namesake restaurant in the northwestern city of Acre, has kept his restaurant open with minimal staffing to help stranded tourists, families and essential workers.

“People need nourishment and care during these times,” Jeremias said. “Food can go a long way.”

In Gaza, no one can believe their eyes

Like many in the hospitality industry, Jeremias has spent the last years rebuilding his business. First there was the pandemic. Then in May 2021, rioters set fire to his hotel and restaurant, which are seen as symbols of coexistence with a mixed Arab and Jewish staff, during a spate of violence.

“Unfortunately Israelis are experienced in those situations,” said Pini Shani, deputy director general of Israel’s Tourism Ministry and head of its marketing administration.

When the fighting stops, he’s confident tourism can return to “normal” in the country shortly after. That may be because Israel has a stronger draw than the typical vacation destination.

“The fact that the religious community, both Christian and Jewish, visit Israel in large numbers gives us the advantage of being able to recover quite quickly after crises,” Shani said.

That’s what had brought Mason to Israel. To support his trip — an interfaith experience led by Mason, a Baptist pastor, and Jewish Rabbi Nancy Kasten — his group partnered with Mejdi Tours.

The socially conscious travel company takes people to conflict zones and provides context on their complex issues. They often pair groups with two guides representing clashing sides. In Northern Ireland, for example, customers travel with both a Catholic and Protestant guide. In D.C., they’re led by a Republican and Democrat.

On trips to Israel and Palestinian territories, travelers go with Israeli and Palestinian guides to “meet refugees, meet soldiers, meet human rights activists,” said Aziz Abu Sarah, 43, a Palestinian peace activist who co-founded Mejdi Tours nearly 15 years ago. “Diplomats, right-wingers, left-wingers, people for two states, people for one state.”

Sarah previously worked as the executive director of the Center for World Religions, Diplomacy and Conflict Resolution at George Mason University. When he started Mejdi, Sarah saw it as less of 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’m Palestinian. My brother was killed by Israeli soldiers,” he said. “Maybe 30 years ago I would have been celebrating this. But today I can’t because these are my friends. It’s people you know.”

‘We just keep working to fight back up’

Working in an area where conflict looms, Sarah said Mejdi has always had crisis management in place and had plans for crises. He says they had six tours on the ground when the violence started — one as large as 50 people. With many airlines canceling flights to Israel, flying out of the Tel Aviv airport was no longer possible, so Mejdi arranged vehicles to take customers out of rocket range.

Some customers stayed in the region and salvaged their trip; others flew home from Jordan. 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 through the end of the month.

Not all companies have followed suit. Sarah knows of some groups still touring — perhaps out of duty to customers (“To some people, it’s also pilgrimage,” Sarah said) or out of necessity.

“We had three years of covid and now this is happening, and I think a lot of people are thinking, ‘Can we take this financially?’” Sarah said.

Baum knows the feeling. “It’s like we just can’t get a break,” she said. “You just kept getting kicked down, and we just keep working to fight back up.”

She isn’t sure how she’ll continue paying her staff if the situation remains volatile. Delicious Israel is hoping some customers will take a credit for a future tour rather than a refund.

In Israel and Gaza, people brace for a long and costly war

Shani said the topic of emergency aid for hospitality businesses is “very complicated,” but says he’s “sure that the government will find the way to support them.”

Baum isn’t feeling as optimistic.

“There are a lot of industries that are going to need money right now,” she said. “I don’t imagine tourism is at the top of their list.”

Israel-Gaza war

Gaza’s largest hospital, al-Shifa, “is not functioning” after days without power, water or reliable internet, the World Health Organization said. Understand what’s behind the Israel-Gaza war.

Hostages: Officials say Hamas militants abducted about 239 hostages in a highly organized attack. Four hostages have been released — two Americans and two Israelis — as families hold on to hope. One released Israeli hostage recounted the “spiderweb” of Gaza tunnels she was held in.

Humanitarian aid: The Palestine Red Crescent Society said it has received over 370 trucks with food, medicine and water in the Gaza Strip through Egypt’s Rafah crossing. However, the PRCS said, there hasn’t been permission yet to bring in fuel to power the enclave’s hospitals, water pumps, taxis and more.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict: The Hamas-controlled Gaza Strip has a complicated history, and its rulers have long been at odds with the Palestinian Authority, the U.S.-backed government in the West Bank. Here is a timeline of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.