by Brent Madison

The Holy Land’s tourism industry has taken a nose-dive of Biblical proportions. From cave-dwelling cheese makers to the suited executives of its finest hotels, Israel frets over the rapidly decreasing numbers of guests to the country. While internal security remains vigilant, outside perceptions of the country have changed, leaving trips to Israel on travelers’ will-visit-some-other-time list. The result? A tremendous vacuum which threatens to tear the tourist industry apart. Once-crowded pilgrimage sights are empty, prices have been slashed to encourage spending, chefs practically applaud when you walk into fine restaurants and, for the daring, there probably won’t be a better time to go.

Israelis wonder why the tourists have stopped coming. Of course they know the reasons—but little seems different for them, only the masses which once thronged to the country have disappeared. On my recent 10-day trip to the Holy Land, our driver, Nisso, asked about Western feelings towards Israel and I gave him the answers he was expecting: Palestinian-Israeli clashes have stirred serious criticisms focusing negative attention on the region; people are skittish after the September 11 terrorist attacks; and vacationers particularly don’t want to spend their holidays worrying about their personal safety.

“Safety?” he laughed sarcastically in reply, “Yeah, we’re all at war in the streets! Do you see any shooting?” He pointed out the window of our van to well-dressed, young Israelis shopping in a packed street bazaar. “Do people here seem scared?” Our diplomatic guide, Judy, was quick to calm his angst.

“Things have changed dramatically for Americans,” she explained, “but for us, they’ve always been this way.”

Actually, I too had been wondering about my personal safety before arriving in Israel. It is hard to ignore the images on the nightly news of crowds running from an attack site, and even harder still to keep those images and the media’s flash-pan reporting in context.

Outside of the van for the first time since arriving at Ben Gurion Airport, I was quick to take note of the relaxed feeling in the air. It certainly felt more secure than on the streets of my hometown Los Angeles (which had over 30,000 reported cases of aggravated assault in the year 2000 alone…). Two fellow Americans traveling with me had overcome similar anxieties before venturing to Israel, but of the nine total travelers scheduled to make up our group, six hadn’t even bothered getting on the plane.

We stood looking at the ancient synagogue of Capernaum, a famous Biblical site that our guide had been to thousands of times during her long career. Standing beside the remains of St. Peter’s home, she looked around towards the old synagogue ruins and stated bleakly, ” I’ve never seen it so empty here.” Everywhere we visited along our trip, empty pilgrimage sites and empty parking lots were constant reminders of the lack of tourists. Six years ago, I took a three-week trip around Israel and had to fight my way through the crowded airport to get past the mass of tourists milling around the exits. My bus stood in the middle of a long line of other buses jockeying for space in the airport’s crowded parking lot. Later, in Jerusalem’s Arab Quarter, trying to squeeze along the Via Dolorosa had been a claustrophobic experience; one I was not looking forward to repeating. Shoppers, tourists, and religious devotees had choked the narrow, stone-lined streets to the point of making it hard to breathe.

But on this visit, it was a case of who wasn’t there. When I arrived at the airport, there were no buses in the empty parking lot. Finding my driver had been almost sad—he stood in the empty lot next to his van smiling at me in solitude. While making a quick trip to the Via Dolorosa (which remember is one of the most-visited places on earth), we were practically alone except for desperate shopkeepers. “Just buy anything, please,” a man wearing an Arab headdress pleaded as I strolled past his trinket-filled shop. Others sat, not bothering to look up as we passed. It seemed some had already given up hope.

This is not the first time in Israel’s history that the tourist trade has had to weather hard times. Those in the industry knew that the future would be difficult as the Second Intifada (known to the Palestinians as al-Intifada al-Aqsa) started on September 28, 2000, when Ariel Sharon entered the Al-Aqsa Mosque in what the Palestinians saw as an act of provocation. As relations continued to worsen between the Palestinians and Israelis, it seems the cards stacked more and more quickly against any kind of peaceful resolution. With the ongoing Intifada, continued retaliations and occupations by the Israeli Army, increased terrorism by radical groups like Hamas and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestinian (PFLP) in Israel, the slow-down of the world’s economy and the already jittery nerves of foreign travelers, the crisis is more serious than any had projected. In fact, as the travel industry is nearing a virtual standstill, it has never been worse.

Over dinner one night, Mr. Ben-David, a member of Israel’s tourism ministry, put some figures to the crisis. “The numbers speak for themselves,” he stated plainly. “In 1999, the number of visitors came to a stunning 25% of the country’s population, with about 2.4 million guests. It was a record year for us. In 2000, the number of foreign visitors, even with the Intifada, was higher still.” He continued gravely, “But now, nobody wants to come to Israel. For tourists, it’s certainly safe, but you can see what the terrorist campaign is doing to us…”

The minister’s exasperation seemed shared by everyone we met as the problem is a highly visible one. According to data from Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics, the number of tourist arrivals for 2001 comes in at just under 800,000.

Those in the tourist business are not projecting good things for 2002 and are looking to the government as they wonder about their fate. The government has spent millions of dollars trying to lure the tourists back but with little success of reversing the trend. Addressing the crisis in Israel’s Knesset in late 2001, Vice Premier and Minister of Finance Silvan Shalom admitted, “Tourism—one of our most important industries—has been dealt a grievous blow. Since the rampage of terror began, inbound tourism has been split in half. Hotels, which have had to fire thousands of employees, are not the only ones to have felt the blow. Serious harm has been inflicted on restaurants, tour guides, travel companies, taxi drivers, and many others who had made a respectable living from tourism.”

The government has planned recovery packages and tax exemptions as a response, hoping to minimize the losses, but the travel industry’s survival is up against much stronger geopolitical powers which only peace will resolve.

In the meantime, hotels are scrambling to fill empty rooms by appealing to local Israeli tourists with dramatic price cuts. There are nearly 50,000 hotel rooms in Israel with tens of thousands remaining unoccupied day after day. As hotels fight one another for survival, those fortunate enough to have a unique angle or specialty are clearly at the advantage. We spent several nights at the garden-like health spa of Mizpe Hayamim. Its exceptional organic foods and rigorous massage therapies (along with a swimming pool with a dramatic view overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights), keep it in business. It was full of Israeli vacationers, taking their own break from the troubles far below.

For most hotels though, the lack of foreign visitors translates into a huge problem. With millions of tourists staying at home, there is a vacuum present which has left tens of thousands without work. As countless hotel rooms remain unoccupied daily, dozens of hotels have found no choice but to close their doors forever. In Jerusalem, we passed a newly built and furnished hotel that would never open for business. Israel had projected as many as 3.2 million tourists for the year 2000, many following Pope John Paul II’s historic trip, and investors were quick to build in anticipation of a tourist flood. The enormous investments which were poured into similar hotels, based on the boom years of 1999 and 2000, were lost instead in a wash of hatred and violence. The hotels that were to be Israel’s newest and finest, now stand empty and unopened as monuments to what could have been.

But losses are not only on the Israeli side. In the Palestinian Authority, where the average annual income is not much more than a thousand US dollars, Palestinians once working in Israel’s tourism sector were particularly hard-hit by the collapse of peace. Thousands of Palestinians who were once employed directly or indirectly by tourism in Israel are now out of work. The Palestinian Intifada has hurt its own, as well over 70,000 Palestinian households report having lost their income since the Al-Aqsa uprising began. The once-thronged sites of Christ in Bethlehem are all but empty, and the hotels once filled by Christian pilgrims, now damaged by Israeli rockets, are closed.

As I told our driver, people don’t want to spend their hard-earned money to visit a war zone during their holidays. While I was not keen to increase my chances of being exposed to violence, I have learned that staying at home does not necessarily equal safety. So with that said, I admit, I was surprised by what I found. I am certainly not the first tourist to arrive in Israel to be confronted with the stark differences between my expectations and the reality on the ground. People on the street were friendly and welcoming. Besides the Jewish kippaskullcaps worn by many men or the Arab headdresses sported in parts of the Arab Quarter, we could have been visiting Paris — as locals dined at outdoor cafes, enjoyed street fairs and packed out the marketplaces tucked between trendy neighborhoods. “Life goes on,” stated one woman sagaciously.

On this trip, we had the chance to visit the Holy Land in a way that most people only dream of seeing it. Museums, churches, and famous sites were ours to explore at leisure without the pressure of large, noisy crowds. Prices were cheaper than expected and deals abounded, as everyone offered discounts to win our business. “BIG DISCOUNT!! FOR THE TOURISTS WHO ARE COMING TO ISRAEL IN THESE DIFFICULT TIMES,” read a sign in a silver shop window.

Yet neither our positive experiences, good shopping, nor government stimulus packages will cure Israel’s tourist dilemma. No one knows how to entice travelers to return. On my last day in Israel, an older, Palestinian-Jew seemed to have the answer. As the owner of a small hostel in Jerusalem, his tiny business was slowly starving like so many others. We spoke of the Intifada and its effects as we strolled the promenade amongst the shops of Nachlat Benyamin Street. “Pray for peace,” he urged as we parted.

Certainly peace, when it comes, will be Israel’s greatest tourist attraction.



Brent Madison spends 10 months of the year traveling the globe in search of people and places to capture on film and paper. His recent adventures have taken him tramping through jungles with guerilla armies, speed boat riding up the Mekong River, drinking Ganges water at an Indian funeral and riding a burning, Japanese shrine at the base of Mt. Fuji. Check out his photographic work at…

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