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With foreign airlines staying away, Israeli travel sector in free fall
The only Western airline to announce it will restart flights to Israel since Oct. 7 is Lufthansa, which is expected to resume travel to Ben Gurion Airport this month
As Israel’s war against Hamas enters its third month, some facets of Israeli life have gone back to something resembling normalcy. Most schools, shops and restaurants have long been open. This week, universities started the semester that was scheduled to begin in October.
But the tourism industry, which makes up less than 3% of Israel’s GDP, has been unable to bounce back.
While tourism to Israel was up 18% overall throughout 2023, there was a steep dropoff after the Oct. 7 terrorist attacks. Tourism was down 73.1% in October compared to last year — a decline that would have been even more significant if the first week of the month wasn’t Sukkot, when there were many tourists visiting Israel.
In November, there were 88.4% fewer tourists from the same period in 2022. Data for December has not yet been released.
“There is no expected [time frame] for tourism to return to 2019’s record number of 4.5 million tourists,” Tourism Ministry spokeswoman Anat Shihor-Aronson told Jewish Insider.
“In the tourism industry, one rocket can change everything,” Israeli food tour guide Harry Rubenstein told JI.
Between the Oct. 7 massacre and the end of December, Rubenstein did not give any tours. He was busy during the last week of December, a popular time for tourism. His calendar is again empty.
For every guide like Rubenstein, dozens of other businesses are impacted.
“I focus on the Levinsky Market [in Tel Aviv] and Machane Yehuda [in Jerusalem],” Rubenstein said. “Machane Yehuda…is coming back to life a bit, but it’s pretty quiet. In Tel Aviv, people are less apt to be walking around all the time. It’s pretty dead. I see a trickle-down effect because a lot of these businesses rely on people like me, who bring food tour groups several times a week.”
Normally, Rubenstein gets half of his business from tour agencies, but he has not received any referrals since the war began.
Jonathan Rose, director of marketing and sales for Touring Israel, said in the first two months of the war there was “zero tourism,” but the company created a “solidarity itinerary to try and start to get some business going again.”
“The only option is to fly El Al, and it’s very expensive,” Rose said. “I find it very strange that United or Delta haven’t resumed some flights from New York…It’s like COVID revisited…It’s rather ironic that the only foreign airlines flying to Israel seem to be [UAE flag carrier] Etihad and Fly Dubai.”
According to the Israel Airports Authority, the only foreign airlines flying to Israel other than the Emirati companies are China’s Hainan Airlines and Russia’s Azimuth. Lufthansa is expected to restart flights to Israel next week, and Tarom, a Romanian airline, plans to start at the end of the month, the IAA said.
A spokesperson for United Airlines said that “Tel Aviv flights will remain suspended until conditions allow them to resume.”
Delta canceled flights through March 29, 2024, and Jet Blue is code-sharing with El Al.
A source on Capitol Hill said that “because Israel is classified as a war zone, the standard liability for the air carriers will not allow them to fly into the area.”
Israel’s government provided the country’s airlines El Al, Arkia and Israir with $5 billion in insurance guarantees, enabling them to continue flying throughout the war.
In early December, Ben Gurion Airport CEO Udi Bar-Oz spoke with 120 international airline representatives to try to convince them to restart flights to Israel, and in recent days has called American carriers individually, an Israeli Airports Authority spokesperson told JI.
Bar-Oz said that the airport has been open continuously from the start of the war and pointed out that no rockets struck or fell at the airport.
He also noted that businesses have mostly gone back to normal, without any restrictions in most of the country.
Ben Gurion Airport will do all it can to help airlines that want to return to Israel deal with the current situation, Bar-Oz said.
An average of about 200 flights currently take off and land from Ben Gurion Airport each day, including international, domestic, private and freight flights, according to the IAA, while some local media reports put it at 100 flights per day. The pre-war average was 500 flights per day.
Yael Ravia Tzadok, head of the Israeli Foreign Ministry’s Economic Diplomacy Division, said that the division and Israeli embassies are “acting in the civil aviation world to maintain continuity in air traffic and to renew international airlines’ flights.”
The Foreign Ministry has spoken with officials in key countries and top airlines to “clarify the updated conditions in Israel that are relevant to civil aviation and to emphasize, where relevant, the importance of direct flights to relations between countries.”
“There is high demand for Israel in the American market,” an Israeli Tourism Ministry spokesperson said. “We are in close contact with the American industry and hold a constant dialogue with airlines, presenting our stance that there is high demand for flights to Israel.”
The Tourism Ministry is aware of the challenges, the spokesperson said, but is confident there will be more flights to Israel soon.
Israeli tour guides, who must be licensed by the Tourism Ministry after taking an intensive course that takes 1-2 years, are feeling the brunt of the steep decline in tourism.
Josh Hartuv is a certified Israeli tour guide who lived in Sa’ad, one of the kibbutzim in the Gaza border area that were evacuated after Oct. 7, in his first years in Israel after moving from Canada. His business took such a major hit from the war that he is considering other fields of work or even moving his family to the U.K., where his wife is from.
Hartuv gave one tour in December. Other than that, his calendar from Oct. 7 until now has been empty; before the war, he was fully booked for October and November.
“There’s the immediate financial hit that I took, which really hurt from the moment I started and continues to this day,” Hartuv said. “But emotionally, it also hurt a lot. I first made aliyah to the Gaza envelope, I lived there on and off…first as a soldier and then working in the fields. That area is home, that’s where I’m grounded, even though I have lived in Tel Aviv twice as long.”
“To have that be so violated is like — I lost my own compass in Israel. It’s gone. Even if tourism came back tomorrow, I just couldn’t care about telling the story of the massacre of Masada when a massacre happened in Kfar Aza and Be’eri. That’s how I’m feeling,” he said.
The possibility of taking people to see where attacks took place on Oct. 7 feels “icky” to Hartuv.
“I’m not diminishing visits by Jerry Seinfeld or Jared [Kushner] and Ivanka [Trump]; they’re great for building awareness,” he said. “But it feels like an invasion of privacy…I don’t know if I feel comfortable with death tourism. I’m more comfortable with raising awareness of the situation of the people from the kibbutzim and trying to help them reestablish their lives.”
The return of a small number of Birthright groups won’t help Hartuv, either, because he always had enough private business in the past and never took the course required for Birthright guides to work with the free Israel trips.
Hartuv and Rubenstein both said they had trouble managing the bureaucracy to receive compensation from the government for business lost due to the war.
“It’s not designed for people who have 100 invoices. It’s a big headache,” Hartuv said.
Rubenstein says he is “semi-optimistic” because his business tripled when COVID lockdowns ended.
Meanwhile, he joked that he has been doing “light arms dealing” — helping get military surplus equipment privately donated from the U.S. to IDF soldiers.
But Rubenstein plans to stick with tourism in the long run. Since leaving the tech sector in 2017 to give food tours, he said, “my life has been amazing.”
“I really thrive and it fuels my soul teaching about food in Israel and the history of Jewish food, and meeting people from around the world — I’m getting sad talking about this,” he said. “This is what I’m meant to do.”
Washington correspondent Marc Rod contributed to this report.