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Saturday,  April 20, 2024 10:25 PM 

Is Israel seeing a tourism reboot, despite the war? We asked the IMOT’s Gal Hana

Is Israel seeing a tourism reboot, despite the war? We asked the IMOT’s Gal Hana
Tourists exploring the markets of Jerusalem in 2022. (Pax Global Media/file photo)
Michael Pihach

Michael Pihach is an award-winning journalist with a keen interest in digital storytelling. In addition to PAX, Michael has also written for CBC Life, Ryerson University Magazine, IN Magazine, and Michael joins PAX after years of working at popular Canadian television shows, such as Steven and Chris, The Goods and The Marilyn Denis Show.

The Israel-Hamas war is a crisis of catastrophic proportions that has reached unprecedented levels of death and destruction.

Amid daily reports of chaos and starvation in Gaza, and with a ceasefire deal still hanging in the balance, it’s hard to imagine the words “travel and tourism” fitting into the picture.

Coming out of the pandemic, Israel’s tourism sector, which once accounted for three percent of the country’s economy, was optimistic – even if visitor numbers were lagging behind pre-COVID highs.

Israel welcomed 3.01 million tourism arrivals in 2023, marking an increase of 12.5 per cent over 2022, when 2.67 million visitors were recorded.

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism (IMOT) was projecting at least 5.5 million visitors last year – a million more than 2019’s record high of 4.55 million.

But October 7, 2023, changed all that when Hamas’ onslaught on southern Israel resulted in the deaths of around 1,200 people, most of them civilians, and the kidnapping of 253 others.

READ MORE: More airlines resume flights to Israel; Air Canada still working on logistics

The surprise attack brought foreign tourism in Israel to a halt as airlines and tour operators suspended operations in the Middle Eastern country, icing hopes of a post-COVID rebound.

Almost five months later, the darkness of war continues to plague the region. The idea of a tourism revival in Israel, at a time of armed conflict, seems implausible.

But recent industry activity suggests otherwise. As PAX previously reported, more airlines have confirmed plans to restore connectivity to Israel this month and next.

The number of carriers flying into Israel has inched up to 45, up from a low of just seven in December.

Meanwhile, this year’s International Mediterranean Tourism Exhibition (known as “IMTM”), a major travel and tourism expo, is slated to take place April 3-4 in Tel Aviv.

The in-person event, which connects travel pros with exhibitors from Israel and abroad, appears to be going full steam ahead, according to the conference’s website.

Is Israel in the early stages of a tourism reboot?

"Gradual & limited" demand

Gal Hana, consul for tourism and director for Canada at the IMOT, says “it’s all about perspective.”

“The demand for travel has resumed, despite the war, and it’s gradual and limited,” Hana told PAX in an exclusive interview recently. “People are going [to Israel] because of faith and belief. They know how significant it is to travel and show support.”

Tourism in Israel hit rock bottom following the Oct. 7 attacks, but since then, visitor arrivals have slowly returned, albeit on a smaller scale.

Gal Hana, consul for tourism and director for Canada at the IMOT. (File photo)

In January, Israel welcomed more than 20,000 travellers from the United States, which, in normal times, supplies more than one-third of Israel’s visitors, says the IMOT.

That same month, some 2,000 Canadians travelled to the country, Hana said.

“Some were Jewish, visiting relatives. Others joined the army because they are citizens. And some tourists saw an opportunity to change the world [and volunteer with relief efforts],” Hana explained.

It’s a different tone compared to how things were going in the latter half of last year.   

Arrivals to Israel from Canada in 2019 sat at roughly 100,000, and in 2023, without the weight of COVID restrictions, Canadian traffic was trending just below that mark, sitting at 90 per cent of 2019’s figures (even with fewer direct flights).  

“The month the war started, we were closer to 100 per cent,” Hana shared. “Our prediction was that Q4 of last year would be the best year and exceed 2019’s levels.”

“Faith-based & solidarity tourism”

Israel, not only known for its holy sites, such as the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque, but also for its role as a leisure destination full of culinary and adventure experiences, is now tasked with reigniting its once-thriving tourism sector as its popularity suffers.

Last month, Israeli Minister of Tourism Haim Katz was in Nashville, Tennessee to attend the National Religious Broadcasters (NRB) Convention as a keynote speaker and appeal to the Christian market.

The coastline of Jaffa in 2022. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

According to one report, Minister Katz stressed that the time to visit Israel is now, saying that tourists will feel safe in hotel and tourist areas, away from combat zones, where Israelis have been going about their daily lives.

READ MORE: On Location in Israel - Discovering how to play in the land of pray

He said the destination would not risk putting tourists in harm's way and that U.S.-based groups that cancelled their tours are now rescheduling.

Of all the visitors from the U.S. that visit Israel, more than half are Christians, according to the IMOT, so it's no surprise that Katz said Israel, in 2024, will be characterized by “faith-based and solidarity tourism.”

But is it safe?

On the topic of safety, Hana said he is personally comfortable with travelling to Israel right now, noting that he will soon take his children there.

“Some are not comfortable, but if you ask an Israeli, they are travelling. The malls and markets are full,” Hana said.

He’s of course referring to areas outside of conflict zones (the upper north and southern regions of Gaza).

“In the rest of country, you can travel,” he said. “If you’re walking in Jerusalem, it’s pretty much normal.”

READ MORE: IMOT Canada team shares update on "fluid" situation in Israel, future tourism strategy

Hana said he has heard from faith and purpose-driven travellers that have visited Israel in recent months who said their trip was “the best experience of their life.”

He noted a group of “cowboys from Montana” that flew in to help maintain Israel’s farms and “take care of the cows.” 

“They went to Tel Aviv and were hugged by so many people, thanking them for what they did,” Hana said. “They had never experienced the Mediterranean. If someone wants to travel, I say go for it.”

Travel warnings

Travel, regardless of what’s happening in the world, is a personal choice.

But for travel advisors, the situation of course raises an important question: is it responsible to send clients to a destination during a war?

Global Affairs Canada still advises against non-essential travel to Israel “due to the ongoing regional armed conflict and the unpredictable security situation.”

Canada, specifically, says to avoid all travel to the Gaza Strip, West Bank, and the borders with Syria, Egypt and Lebanon, and to avoid non-essential travel to Jerusalem.

If the role of a travel advisor is to advise, then that’s the Government of Canada’s official advice.

Hana clarified his position. “We’re not encouraging people to travel while the war is on,” he told PAX. “We don’t want to send people to a region when they don’t fully understand where they’re going.”

Preparing for the day after 

The IMOT team in Canada seems less interested in using their budget to promote immediate travel to Israel. Faced with hesitation in the market, they instead appear to be preparing for “the day after” (when the war ends).

“God willing it will end sooner, rather than later,” said Hana.

Old Jerusalem, photographed here in 2022. (Pax Global Media/file photo)

The IMOT is still active in Canada. “But for now, we’re going off the grid until it’s time,” Hana explained.

With exception to some upcoming activations. The IMOT, for example, will participate in Travel Market Place in Vancouver this week.

Hana also has high hopes that the IMTM conference in Tel Aviv next month will go ahead as planned.  

“We are planting the seeds for future demand,” he said.   

The team also continues to meet with Canadian travel advisors to share updates and prepare for Israel’s eventual return to mass tourism.

“We’re here for anyone who needs any kind of support,” Hana said. “We will work closely with travel advisors. Without them, tourism won’t recover.”

“Israel will be top of mind”

The recovery is expected to take time, however. Israel’s previous wars — in 2006 against Hezbollah and in 2014 against Hamas — each lasted less than two months, and their economic impact was somewhat limited compared to what’s happening today.

The current conflict has lasted longer, driving up costs (both financial and in human life), and despite talks of possible resolutions, the situation remains active and fluid.

The foreign arrivals in Israel that have surfaced in recent months “highlights the true potential” of the destination, Hana said.

“Once the war ends, I think Israel will be top of mind for many,” he said, noting Canada’s Jewish and Christian communities as key rebound segments.

Canada, in general, is also a loyal market, Hana said.

“Canadians, over the years, during wars and COVID, showed resilience, commitment and loyalty at levels that no other market in the world has showed towards Israel,” Hana said. “We’re optimistic the market will rebound.”

There will be people who will want to see post-war Israel for themselves, Hana explained. “People will want to see what the war was about, first hand,” he said.

Hana doesn’t refer to this as “war tourism,” but as a form of “peace tourism.”

Israel, which is “about the size of Lake Ontario,” triggers “so many emotions, in so many people,” he explained.  

“That’s a sentiment we’re looking to ignite,” he said.

A call for responsible tourism

At the same time, Hana hopes the travel industry stays true to its word in advancing sustainable and responsible tourism practices – actions that were widely promoted during the COVID years.

“Responsible tourism is not only about reducing the use of brochures and paper products. It’s also about travelling to places where your buck will measure the most,” Hana said.

“I guarantee you, after so many months of no tourism, places [in Israel] will need tourists. They will share the story of what happened, emotionally. This is where tourism can make a difference,” he said.

“I hope travel will stand next to Israel. We need to set that trend.”

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