My Word: Think tourism, not terror
"You can even pick up that cute soldier from the beach, but don’t take her home with you. She belongs here and the country still needs her."
Tel Aviv beach Photo: Reuters Photographer / Reuters
On the face of it, the Tourism Ministry picked a helluva time to launch a
campaign asking Israelis to personally invite visitors from overseas to come and
experience the country firsthand. The face, by the way, is definitely a pretty
one: The campaign stars the multi-talented actress and producer Noa Tishby
describing how with one click (of the computer kind), patriotic citizens can do
their bit for the economy (and the country’s image) by boosting the tourism
Unlike many colleagues, I supported the ill-fated Immigrant
Absorption Ministry ads last year encouraging expats to return home; before
that, I refused to ridicule the do-it-yourself Masbirim public diplomacy effort
which was meant to provide material and guidance to individual Israeli travelers
and trekkers; and ahead of Rosh Hashana, I not only dutifully but with a great
deal of pleasure sent personalized greetings for the Jewish New Year to my real
and virtual friends via Facebook – the same friends, I assume, I am now meant to
urge to come over and see me some time.
My hesitation with the latest
campaign is not so much the timing as the crass attempts at humor (you have to
be Israeli to find the images in this campaign funny, or even to understand
It’s not the Hebrew; it’s the mind-set). I’m also not sure what my
friends would say were I to send them a very nice invitation but with no help in
funding the proposed trip (how about discounts in hotels, restaurants and major
tourism sites for those who answer the call?).
The least of the problems,
I have concluded, is the timing. As far as I’m concerned, any time you can come
here is a good time – even though there seems to be another mini-war going on in
our particular corner of the world (a corner, certainly not God-forsaken whatever
else you want to say about it).
As so many of the ads starring Tishby pop
up between the footage of damage from megastorm Sandy in the US and the
Palestinian shelling in the Israeli South, I can’t help but recall what an
astute teenager once pointed out to me during a tour of the communities
bordering Gaza: “Nowhere’s safe, but this is my home.”
In fact, a few
years ago a tornado hit Toronto during the same time that I hit the town. The
recommended safety measures – take cover in the basement and follow instructions
via the media – sounded very similar to those drilled into Israeli
schoolchildren in the event of a missile attack. I’m not sure whether having no
one to blame for the tremendous damage (and the death of a child) made it easier
or worse. It’s inconceivable for Canadians to imagine their southern neighbors
launching missiles at them. No wonder most of the Western world has a different
idea of what an appropriate Israeli response to the attacks from Gaza should be.
Experiencing a tornado, which we were assured was “a freak occurrence,” was not
something we’d planned when we set up the visit to family, but if I considered
all the potential disasters in every destination I probably wouldn’t even be
able to board a plane (and flying itself would be terrifying.) All over the
world, there are places that actually build a travel industry based on turning
life’s bitter lemons into lemonade.
Three years ago, in Taiwan, I was
taken on a press tour of the area around Ji Ji township that the participating
journalists dubbed the “Earthquake Tourism Trail.” A devastating quake hit the
region in 1999, and as part of a campaign to rebuild and revitalize it, the
government is promoting tourism there. Our visit, by the way, took place not
long after Typhoon Morakat, which killed some 600 Taiwanese and displaced many
An unusual form of tourism seems to be developing in the Negev, too
– more like something from David Ben-Gurion’s nightmares than his dreams:
sympathy trips. Solidarity tours to Sderot and nearby communities are, of
course, praiseworthy efforts – offering not only a morale boost to the
beleaguered residents but also economic benefits (local businesses can’t
function properly when their owners and employees are constantly running for
The South, indeed, has much to offer from the wonderful
scenery; the kibbutz experience; artists’ workshops, galleries and museums; and
the Cinematheque in Sderot, which succeeds in holding a decent international
film festival in what can only be described as “sur-reel”
The more adventurous tourists can go on extreme but
exciting cycling rides and they can also enjoy the view overlooking Gaza from
the Asaf Siboni Lookout, where a breeze rustles up a pleasant sound from the
picturesque wind chimes in a pastoral setting.
I’m not into “victim
tours.” There are enough good reasons to visit Israel beyond solidarity (however
admirable): holy sites, exotic markets, amazing museums; excellent kosher
restaurants; brilliant beaches; a vibrant nightlife; and outstanding dance and
cultural events, to mention a few. And permit a former Brit to note that the
weather’s not bad, most of the year, either.
When you’ve gone down the
list of obvious places for your tastes, sensitivities and budgets, think off the
beaten track. My favorite spots, for local tourists as well as foreign visitors,
include the caves at Beit Guvrin and the Stalactite Cave at the Avshalom Nature
Reserve. And sitting in a camouflaged safari truck while thousands of cranes
gracefully land in the surrounding fields might not be an only-in-Israel
experience, but I’ve never seen anything like it and it’s a pity to leave the
country without going to the Hula Valley nature reserve.
A few months
ago, birdwatching of a different type was all the rage on the (un)social media.
A photo of an off-duty woman soldier at a Tel Aviv beach with a gun slung across
her back and resting on her bikini-clad bum, went viral.
True, this is
the only country in the Middle East where a girl (let alone a Jewish one) could
go out underdressed with or without a weapon (just as Tel Aviv probably has the
liveliest gay scene anywhere along the Mediterranean, and definitely in the
Mideast), but personally, as a former gun-toting soldier, I found it rather
demeaning. There’s a limit, after all, to what I am prepared to do for my
country, and saying “whatever turns you on” to slobbering men (whatever their
tourist potential) crosses my red line.
Despite the largely hostile local
response to the tourism campaign, somebody must be listening. The Tourism
Ministry this week published figures that in the first 10 months of the year a
record number of visitors, three million, made it to our shores (on cruise
ships), airports and border crossings with Jordan.
If only we could
persuade Hamas that Gaza, too, would benefit from developing a trade in tourism
rather than terror, life would be better for all of us.
who do everything at the last minute (spontaneity is simultaneously one of our
best and most annoying traits), most normal people in normal countries make
plans ahead of time. So if you’re planning your summer vacation now, think
Israel – for all the right reasons.
Readers abroad should consider
themselves personally invited; readers in Israel already know what others are
missing. Try it, feel it (and buy the clichéd T-shirt.) You can even pick up
that cute soldier from the beach, but don’t take her home with you. She belongs
here and the country still needs her.
The writer is editor of The
International Jerusalem Post.