Israel had high hopes for tourism this year, not only as an economic driver, but as peacemaker with the rest of the world. Those hopes have come crashing down with last weekend's Hamas attack.
Just a few weeks ago, tourism was said to be the olive branch that was going to improve relations between Israel and the rest of the Middle East. Saturday’s surprise Hamas attack on the country has a confirmed death toll of more than 1,000 so far, completely halting its tourism sector, and further delaying any hopes of stability in the area.
“Citizens of Israel, we are at war — not in an operation, not in rounds — at war,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu broadcasted following the Hamas group’s attack on parts of Israel, including the capital and tourist hot spot Tel Aviv. In the south of the country, Hamas stormed and opened fire on a festival where there were more than 3,000 people.
More than 260 bodies have reportedly been recovered from the festival site, according to rescue agency Zaka, reported the BBC. Others have been taken hostage.
International tourism has responded by freezing travel to Israel and advising all its citizens to steer clear of the country.
Airlines’ Reaction to Hamas Attack
Across the world, the industry’s largest carriers have stopped routes to Israel, while governments, such as the US, have issued a “Do Not Travel” to Gaza and “Exercise Increased Caution When Traveling To” Israel or the West Bank, due to terrorism and civil unrest.
Canada and the UK have similar travel advisories, updated for citizens over the weekend. Australia’s foreign minister gave similar warnings at a press conference held at Melbourne Airport over the weekend.
Here are the statements from carriers across the world:
American Airlines: “(American Airlines) has temporarily suspended operations to and from Tel Aviv, Israel (TLV) and has issued a travel alert providing additional flexibility to customers whose travel plans are affected. We continue to monitor the situation with safety and security top of mind and will adjust our operation as needed. Customers should visit aa.com or use the American Airlines mobile app to check the status of their flights.”
Delta: “Delta continues to monitor the situation and is making schedule adjustments accordingly. Currently, our TLV flights have been canceled into this week. Customers impacted by canceled flights or who want to change their TLV ticket should check their Delta app, visit Delta.com or call Delta reservations to make adjustments.” On Background: Delta will work with the U.S. government as needed to assist with the repatriation of U.S. citizens who want to return home.
United: “Our Tel Aviv flights will remain suspended until conditions allow them to resume.”
Air Canada: “We are monitoring this dynamic situation closely and we will adjust these plans as required. We remain in contact with the Canadian government. Air Canada will resume operations to Tel Aviv as soon as the situation stabilizes.”
Lufthansa, SWISS & Austrian: “Against the background of the current situation in Israel, Lufthansa is canceling all flights to and from Tel Aviv up to and including Monday, October 9th, 2023 We are continuously monitoring the security situation in Israel and are in close contact with the authorities. The safety of our guests and crew members has top priority for Lufthansa.”
British Airways: “We are continuing to monitor the situation in Israel very closely and have introduced a flexible booking policy, enabling customers to change their travel dates free of charge if they wish. Today’s flight to Tel Aviv was cancelled, but flights are currently planned to operate over the coming days with adjusted departure times.”
Air India: “Our flights to and from Tel Aviv will remain suspended till October 14, 2023, for the safety of our passengers and crew.”
Hainan Airlines: The sole Chinese carrier connecting China and Israel, has called off its Tel Aviv to Shanghai flights on Monday. The carrier has three direct flight routes between China and Israel. In November, the airline reopened the route between Shenzhen in southern China and Tel Aviv. It also operates flights between Beijing and Tel Aviv.
Cathay Pacific: On Monday, the Hong Kong carrier confirmed the cancellation of its Hong Kong to Tel Aviv flight scheduled for Tuesday, with plans to provide further updates on the next flight on Thursday.
Korean Air: The flag carrier of South Korea has scrapped its Monday flight that operates between the port city of Incheon and Tel Aviv, and anticipates that future flights on this route may experience irregular scheduling.
Israel Tourism Upended
Prior to its bloodiest attack in decades, Israel had high hopes this year for its tourism sector. In 2022, the country saw 2.7 million tourists back after Covid restrictions lifted. These visitors brought $4 billion back into the economy and helped Israel get back on track toward a record-breaking year of tourism in 2023.
For 2019, the country had 4.7 million visitors.
A statement from the Minister of Tourism at the start of 2023 was immensely positive: “2022 was a year of recovery from the corona(virus) crisis. The trend is positive and breaking the incoming tourism record of 2019 is a realistic goal on the horizon. Domestic tourism has proven itself as an economic force just as essential as incoming tourism. Our goal is to reduce obstacles, to launch projects that increase the accommodation supply and develop infrastructure, to fully realize the tourism potential in the country.”
But the country has struggled to meet its targets so far this year.
In August 2023, Israeli tourism was reported to be 4%-7% lower than the pre-Covid levels of 2019, as per data released by the Central Bureau of Statistics. During that month, Israel saw a total of 311,200 foreign visitors, with 284,200 of them categorized as tourists who spent at least one night in the country. To provide context, this marked a contrast from the figures of August 2022 when 247,100 foreign visitors arrived, and August 2019 when 324,200 visitors came to Israel. Additionally, in August 2022, there were 234,400 tourists who spent at least one night, while in August 2019, that number was 304,600.
Up to August of this year, Israel was still behind its 2019 levels by 13%, bringing in 2.52 million visitors compared to 2019’s 2.89 million up to the same period.
Israel’s tourism minister had recently presented a plan to welcome seven million tourists by 2030 and was looking to focus on Asian markets to increase the number of visitors.
The Americas and Europe have been Israel’s largest source markets in both 2023 and 2019 up to August, so carriers halting flights from those areas will likely have a sizeable impact on travel numbers in the fall and winter.
1.28 million visits up to August 2023 came from Europe for Israel, and 921,000 from America. America in particular was 9% ahead of August 2019 year-to-date levels, one of the only regions to be ahead of pre-pandemic numbers for Israel.
Israel had redoubled its efforts to appeal to Chinese tourists, recognizing the significance of this market. The tourism ministry had been taking proactive steps, including forging a partnership with Weibo, China’s equivalent of Facebook, and launching a targeted campaign on the platform.
Before the pandemic, Israel had devoted substantial resources to attract Chinese tourists, resulting in a record-breaking year in 2019, with over 150,000 Chinese visitors, most of whom arrived with tour groups. However, the pandemic brought a halt to Chinese tourism. Encouragingly, Israel’s recent inclusion on China’s approved list for group travel had signaled a potential resurgence in this vital tourism sector.
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Photo credit: The Hamas attack on Israel has completely halted its tourism sector. Chris Tobin / Getty Images