(photo credit: Ariel Jerezolimski)
Still recovering from last summer's war, Israel's tourism industry spent Tuesday preparing for another potential blow - this one self-inflicted.
Industry representatives ranging from airline officials to tour operators expressed frustration bordering on dismay Tuesday as the Histadrut Labor Federation and the Finance Ministry continued negotiations over public sector wages, with a failure of talks potentially leading to a general strike and airport closure. The closure of Ben-Gurion Airport during a peak travel period would leave thousands of travelers stranded for each day of the strike, officials said, and would generate both millions of dollars in losses and additional damage to Israel's image as a tourist destination.
"Sometimes I think we are our own enemies when it comes to tourism," said Ruth Ben-Tzur, the Tel Aviv-based general manager for Air Canada's Middle East operations. "I really believe we have the right to strike - I don't think we shouldn't have the right to strike - but the timing that's been chosen can really hurt the State of Israel, and that disturbs me very much."
"I think it's a tragedy for the tourism industry if the strike lasts more than 12 hours," said Janos Damon, executive director of the Israel Hotel Managers Association. "It won't have a long-term effect, but it will spoil Israel's good name."
But whether the country could claim a "good name" even if the strike were averted was a question eliciting varying responses, with some tourism workers saying that the mere threat of a strike damaged Israel's reputation among foreign travelers and companies involved in tourism.
"There are the [potential] losses of millions of dollars per day, but the damage is also longer-range," said Jacob Lev-Ari, owner and manager of Shelly Tours. "If we have a contract with travel agents and wholesalers [overseas] and every half a year or year there's a strike, the travel agents won't want to work with us. We'll implore them to give up cancellation fees with this strike, but they can say, 'Why should I?' Why should they invest in promoting travel to Israel when this happens?"
The industry's relatively rapid recovery from last summer's war is playing its own part, somewhat paradoxically, in compounding potential problems resulting from a strike. Fears of deep and lasting damage following the fighting proved unfounded, with the Israel Airports Authority reporting earlier this month that Ben-Gurion Airport was on track to process more passengers in 2007 than in any year but 2000, the best year ever for incoming tourism.
But with flights entering and exiting Israel at near capacity, there's little that can be done to help tourists who lose their tickets in a strike. While airline officials said they were doing what they could to move passengers to flights departing before the airport closure began, their options were limited by the dearth of empty seats.
And with the busy summer travel season filling flights worldwide, airlines are also less able to reassign larger aircraft to carry passengers delayed on trips in and out of Israel once a strike ends.
Because strikes aren't covered by travelers insurance, most vacationers' losses won't be protected. Officials at El Al, Air Canada and British Airways said their companies would do their best to help passengers rebook affected tickets, but noted that the airlines aren't legally obligated to refund tickets lost in a strike, and that they're forbidden from bumping passengers on later flights to make room for those who've been delayed.
While their immediate priority remains customer service, Israeli-based officials of foreign airlines said relations with their companies' overseas headquarters were also a concern. Though Ben-Tzur said that reducing flights to Israel had "never even crossed anyone's mind" at Air Canada, she added that the threat of a strike "puts me in an embarrassing situation."
In contrast to the intifada, Lebanon war and wider regional problems that diminish travel to Israel, responsibility for a strike clearly lays with Israelis. "Airlines are a business, they're not philanthropic organizations," Ben-Tzur said. "Why should they put their equipment on routes where there are always problems?"
"The name of our country for years was 'War Zone,'" Ben-Tzur said, "and when things recover a little, we close the airport. We are not yet a normal country, unfortunately, so we can't afford to act like other countries that have strikes. Italy can have strikes - millions will still run into the country the day after."
Israel's situation remains different, she went on. "We're in such a marvelous situation that we can do this?" she asked. "It's ridiculous."