Tourism on the ground in Israel reveals a grim picture as the region continues to deal with the deep-rooted issues at the heart of the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Israeli-based tour guides are facing a wave of cancellations as the country unites in response to the fatal missile attacks on Saturday. As of Monday, more than 1,000 people had lost their lives.
Intrepid Travel has canceled tours to Israel and the Palestinian Territories until 31 October. The Travel Corporation also confirmed all its October departures had been canceled as of Saturday, noting it had two Trafalgar trips and two Insight Vacation trips planned for the affected region.
All resources are being channeled into providing relief, according to Laura Ilan, a freelance Israeli tour guide based near the Sea of Galilee in the Northern part of Israel, who recounted the events that unfolded on Saturday morning while guiding a tour group of 18 Colombian travelers to famous pilgrimage sites in Jerusalem.
“We left the hotel more or less at 8.30 am. We left the hotel on our way to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. We were supposed to be in Bethlehem in the afternoon, but then, two minutes after that, the siren broke, warning of missile attacks on the holy city,” said Ilan.
“I turned around the bus because I knew it was a matter of seconds.”
Ilan explained how warning systems are activated when there is an attack. “If you hear a siren in Israel, wherever you are, we know that it is so precise that we immediately need to go to where the shelters are. I headed back to the hotel, where I immediately went and found out exactly where the shelter is. I took all the tourists there to show them because it’s on every floor in the hotel.”
Jerusalem was full of visitors celebrating Sukkot, a weeklong Jewish holiday five days after Yom Kippur. Ilan had guided the group since the previous Monday, and Saturday was meant to be the final day of the tour.
“I just wanted to make sure that I’m not leaving the tourists on their own. You know, a bit confused and stressed, not understanding what it is to be in a state of war in a country,” she said. “Just the day before, we were standing next to the Kotel, the Western Wall, and looking also at the Dome of the Rock. There were so many people in the Kotel. While Jews are praying near the Kotel, Muslims go and pray in the mosque, in al-Aqsa.”
“But then, within a fraction of a second, everything can change,” said Ilan.
The Colombian group expressed their gratitude in a letter to Ilan. Following is an excerpt of the letter: “During the trip, we had already seen what a great human being Laura is, but on this day, we reaffirmed it. We saw her cry for the people from her homeland whom she didn’t know but whom she grieved for as if they were her own family. Then, she gathered the strength to continue with us, to tell us about the beauty of Israel, its people, its individuals – people like her, full of love and service to others.
“Even people from other tours approached her for help or advice since their guides had to leave. Laura was supposed to finish her guiding duty on Saturday, 7 October, but she decided to stay with us because she felt responsible for us and wanted to accompany us on 8 October as we left Israel for the Jordanian border.”
Midway through Ilan’s account of the weekend attack shared with Skift, she received another notification that missiles were heading to Tel Aviv.
“I have my app, I can see where the missile is about to hit, whether it’s Tel Aviv, where my parents live, where my children live, or if it comes straight to where we live here in the north. So I just got that warning that it’s coming to Tel Aviv, and I had to stop talking. I will call them in a second to see how they are.”
When it came to taking care of the Colombian group, Ilan said, “I just did what I had to do.”
“So this is the reality that we are living now, and it is a nightmare. This is what I can say: it’s bad, bad, bad,” said Ilan.
In addition to the letter from her Colombian group, Ilan has been communicating with groups she previously guided to let them know the situation and that she and her colleagues are safe for now. However, all of Ilan’s groups that were supposed to come this week had been canceled, with a group she was meant to start guiding on Monday sending a cancelation request through on Sunday.
“At the moment, the Israeli tour guides, what we are doing is actually helping in any way we can, in civil organizations, you know, with donating clothes, food, equipment for the soldiers. I mean, the whole country, civilians are doing everything that we can just to help,” said Ilan.
“We are fine here, safe. We hear the Air Force airplanes are above us all the time, flying. They go back and forth. Very weird sensation, but it’s not yet the end. The numbers of casualties are going up and up. This is something I really have no words for. We feel so many things at the same time. It hurts, it hurts, it hurts,” said Ilan.
“But as I’m telling everybody, we will overcome it. We will, because of the spirit, because of the people here. Because we feel for everyone that died, for every child, every woman, we feel as if it was our own family. This is how it is in Israel. But this will be so traumatic. This will leave us with so many scars for many years to come.”
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