Like any other country with a flourishing tourism industry, Israel goes to great lengths to market itself as a desirable destination for visitors. The Mediterranean nation has a lot to offer, from religious and historical sites to great cuisine and nightlife. But to get into the country most visitors pass through Ben Gurion Airport – an experience some find a little off-putting, to say the least.
In light of growing concerns among government officials that the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) campaign might be succeeding in isolating Israel, efforts are being made to promote the country’s image through political advocacy and tourism.
Visitors to the country could be Israel’s best advocates but some, it seems, do not leave with the greatest of impressions.
“Straight off the bat you get a more thorough screening than Israelis. Intrusive questions, trying to figure out what kind of person you are,” Stuart Brown, an engineer working in the oil industry in the United Arab Emirates (UAE), told The Media Line. Brown flew from Cyprus to Israel to visit friends there and found that security staff looking through his passport prior to check-in were suspicious of some of his documentation. “When they saw the UAE visa and Saudi Arabian visa they didn’t like that at all,” he said.
The questioning that followed lasted around thirty minutes and seemed to focus on whether or not Brown worked and socialized with Arabs in the UAE. If it was not for an Israeli friend who was accompanying him, and who was taken to one side and questioned in Hebrew, Brown wonders whether he would have been allowed to board the flight at all.
As a first encounter with Israel, the security screening clashed with the overall image Brown took away from his visit to the country. “Once you’re in Israel it’s a good country: rich history, good food, the people are friendly. So it’s a bad first impression,” the British citizen said.
This negative aftertaste to an otherwise enjoyable visit is something that a number of tourists come away with, Ben Julius, CEO and President of Tourist Israel, told The Media Line.
“Ninety-five percent of tourists who come into the country have no problem at the airport (but) a small percentage of people have a really uncomfortable experience and that’s a problem,” Julius, who immigrated to Israel from England, said.
Although there is sometimes a legitimate reason for suspicion, most of the tourists on the receiving end of tough questioning by Israeli security staff are simply visitors who say the wrong thing at the wrong time, the CEO explained. Expressing plans to visit tourist sites in the Palestinian Territories or in Jordan can arouse suspicion, he suggested. “I really don’t think a person who is visiting a country should have to be strategic and plan what they are going to say,” Julius said.
And if a visitor does seem suspicious, the manner in which he is questioned is often problematic, the tour operator said. “They are addressed as if they are guilty until proven innocent.”
This is self-destructive because visitors to Israel can be useful ambassadors. Most enjoy their time in the country and develop a more rounded picture of what’s going on than the negative perceptions held by many Westerners, the CEO said.
This is an issue that affects more than just tourists and tour operators.
An Israeli man whose girlfriend was detained and eventually deported from the country when she tried to visit him, and who spoke to The Media Line on condition of anonymity, described the treatment he and his girlfriend received from airport officials. “They treated her really bad, like she was a criminal or a terrorist,” he said.
Visa discrepancies were cited as the reason for her detainment and deportation, though the couple insist they did nothing wrong. During the entire incident staff did little to explain the situation and no immediate avenue for appeal was presented, the man, who works in the tourism industry himself, said. His girlfriend was left in the dark about the whole situation and was not even fed properly during her hours of detainment, he said.
Eventually the woman was escorted onto a plane and flown back to Europe. The incident left the couple concerned for their future, so much so that they are taking legal advice.
“It feels like this was a random decision by one officer and that there was no one else (to appeal to) – she could decide by herself without any proof,” he said. But it was the treatment of his girlfriend by staff that was the most grating, he explained. “Ok, you’ve decided not to let her in but then at least treat her as a normal person. She did not commit any crime,” he said, explaining that watching his girlfriend being escorted onto the plane by a police officer was particularly uncomfortable.
Israel has learnt from long years of combatting terrorism that it takes more than just technology to protect airlines, Aviv Oreg, a former senior security officer for El Al Israel Airlines, told The Media Line. “There is a system that Israel uses based on the notion that suspicious signs and indicators should be identified through some sort of questioning.” Such policies are preferable as they concentrate on the 1% of travelers who are suspicious, he explained.
In the past dangers have been posed to El Al by Europeans duped into carrying explosive devices, Oreg said, pointing to the 1986 Hindawi affair. In incidents like these questioning by staff saved lives where technology and metal detectors would have failed to, the security expert argued.
While conducting questioning “(Staff) are instructed and trained to explain the process and to be polite throughout the process,” Oreg noted.
Both the Israel Airport Authority and the Israeli Ministry of Interior’s Population and Migration Authority declined to comment to the issues raised in this article.
While acknowledging the need for security – and noting that it is something Israel does very well – Ben Julius lamented that some tourists were being given a bad impression of Israel.
“The bottom line is that Israel spends hundreds of millions of dollars a year on tourism marketing campaigns and the first impression people get when they reach the country is often the total opposite of the message the campaigns are sending out,” he concluded.