Reservations about safety

Hotels, restaurants and the taxi industry are feeling the pinch as the conflict scares away tourists.

Mamilla Mall has not been affected by events, though tourists are stressed. (photo credit: SARAH GRUEN)
Mamilla Mall has not been affected by events, though tourists are stressed.
(photo credit: SARAH GRUEN)
For the longtime Jerusalem resident, nothing appears to have become particularly out of the ordinary since rockets began falling two weeks ago. The shuk is still crowded on Friday afternoons, packed tight with all types of vendors and buyers; Ben-Yehuda Street still enjoys a gentle buzz of people during the day; and the Mamilla Mall still hosts a steady stream of chic shoppers.
It is as if there were two Iron Domes protecting the routine of Jerusalemites – the rocket-stopping one deployed by the IDF and the ideological one in the minds of Israelis that prevents the war from impeding their everyday life.
Still, for many first-time visitors to Israel, the current conflict isn’t simply “another round of rockets” or a mere nuisance. Rather than taking this time to understand and live the Israel experience – which includes feeling the urgency that defines Israel as a nation – many tourists are deferring activities in fear of rocket strikes, shortening their stay here or even canceling their trip altogether. And as air travel to and from Israel was canceled by all American carriers and some European ones, the situation is expected to worsen.
David Tucker, vice president of marketing and sales at the Mamilla Hotel and the David Citadel Hotel, says that the ongoing conflict has dramatically impacted business in what should be Israel’s peak tourist season.
“Over 80 percent of our guests are tourists at the David Citadel, and 90% are tourists at the Mamilla,” he says.
According to Tucker, many of these tourists ask the same question. “People who already made reservations and people who are asking about new bookings ask, ‘is it safe?’” Despite the common Israeli notion that “of course Israel is safe,” many of the travelers are unconvinced that it is safe to be in Israel at this time.
“Many who made new reservations are thinking of canceling,” says Tucker. “The cancellations amount to a drop of about 30% in future business,” he estimates.
The Tzuba Hotel has faced significant losses as well, amounting to hundreds of thousands of shekels.
Groups from abroad have even canceled bookings as far away as January and February. To counter the drop in business, the hotel has offered special low prices for guests coming from the confrontation areas just to cover costs.
These drops in occupancy are consistent across Jerusalem. “July and August this summer we expected to be good months,” says Arie Sommer, director of the Jerusalem Hotels Association. Usually, hotels enjoy “80 percent occupancy of people in the city… because of the situation we are down this week to 40 percent occupancy,” according to Sommer. These figures do not take into account the flight cancellations.
Restaurants, too, have faced problems with business since the conflict began.
“We usually get a lot of tourists here this season,” says Ronen Rimon, manager of Café Rimon on Ben- Yehuda Street. “We don’t really know which direction it will go or what to do yet.”
For taxi driver Yoram Ben-Shushan of Rehavia Taxi, business has taken a direct hit from the lack of tourists, his primary customers, as well as from Israelis themselves.
“Fifty percent fewer [customers] than normal are calling,” he says. “In the evening, usually most of the people go out to dinner or to a show,” he explains.
But since the conflict began, “people don’t go out as much.” He believes this is also due to the fact that fewer people are even around to go out. “Most of the tourists have left the country,” he says.
Ronen says that the attitudes of visitors have also changed since the fighting first started.
“I see they are a bit nervous. They’re asking where the shelter is,” he remarks.
This shelter-seeking phenomenon seems to be restricted to foreigners. After the first siren sounded – the threshold at which point running for shelter in Jerusalem seems to have become routine – hiding from rocket fire was more widely worrisome for tourists than for locals. Upon entering restaurants, hastily drawn signs advertising shelters exist for the sake of the visiting customer rather than the regular diners. On one night in Tel Aviv, when the sirens sounded outside a crowded sushi bar, only a handful went for the underground shelter – none of them was Israeli.
Hotels and restaurants have made accommodations accordingly.
“We are very aware of the needs of the guests during this period,” says Tucker. “We try to meet the requirements of the guests.”
For Tucker, this means increasing customer service.
“We always have a manager on duty. But now we’ve added a manager above and beyond, and we have 24-hour [availability] of people to answer questions, to direct them to wherever they’re supposed to go,” he says.
Keeping customers calm has been of utmost importance, according to Rimon.
“We direct them to the safe place, and we educate the waiters on what to do and what to tell them,” he says.
Dealing with sirens for tourists unaccustomed to rocket fire has not been a major problem, says Ben- Shushan.
“Some of them panic, but for most of them we stop the car and go to the side of the road or into a house,” the cab driver says.
Evyatar Lazarovitch has been working as a security guard at the Mamilla Mall for the past eight months. Despite the escalating conflict, he describes no change in tourism patterns.
“This area is not too affected by the events,” he says.
Though many tourists are “nice and relaxed,” he says he has still run into his share of nervous visitors.
“Once in a while you meet people who ask if [I] check more people,” says Lazarovitch. “They want to know if I’ll do more searches.”
In terms of sirens sounding in the mall, “Tourists panic much more quickly than Israelis. Israelis say, ‘Okay,’ they go down to the shelter or even go outside to see something, take pictures; but the tourists quickly go inside and try to go to a safe place,” he recounts.
According to Ben Hudja, the manager of the Kedma Restaurant in the Mamilla Mall, although the conflict is on the minds of many, customers don’t seem particularly tense until the sirens sound. “[The sirens] only happened twice, but it’s not very nice to be having lunch or dinner and then have to go to the shelter.”
Kedma has suffered a loss of business similar to that of other hotels and restaurants since the conflict started to heat up, and Hudja does not expect the situation to improve for some time.
“There has been a large decrease – many cancellations already for August and for September,” he says.
For the American Colony Hotel, the short term isn’t the primary concern. “Short-term cancellations were replaced by journalists, as the hotel has always been the place where negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians take place,” says a source from the hotel. “We are worried about the upcoming months’ cancellations until the area is back to normal.”
Unlike other conflicts in which Jerusalem was largely unaffected by rockets, the current situation has been a new one for Hudja.
“Jerusalem used to enjoy the conflicts because everybody would come here, since it’s mainly safe,” he says. “In this round, it’s everywhere. Now no one is coming to Israel.”
The conflict seems different to the manager of the American Colony Hotel as well.
”I have to emphasize this time that cancellations seem to be more numerous. [The conflict] has affect[ed] not only short-term but long-term reservations as well.”
Despite the current drop in tourism, many hoteliers and restaurant managers are still confident that Israel’s growing tourism industry will not be damaged in the long term.
“We’ve seen it all, the ups and the downs,” says Tucker. “After all these years, there’s a line that’s still constantly going up, even if there’s a hiccup like this.”
“Each time there is a conflict, there is the same thing,” says Ben-Shushan. “With Lebanon [in 2006], it was the same, even worse, but it all came back. In a couple of months, six months, when the tourists come again, business will be up.”
The Tourism Ministry echoes Tucker’s faith in a gradual return of deterred tourists to Israel.
“As a result of Operation Protective Edge, Israel has naturally experienced a decrease in the number of tourists visiting the country. However, it should be noted that there has been no panic or mass departures,” says a source from the Tourism Ministry.
“There is a slowdown in reservations for the near future.”
“Based on previous experience, the ministry is optimistic about the ability of the industry to bounce back to routine and even to an upturn in incoming tourism that has characterized the last two years,” the ministry reports.
The ministry speaks from experience. “Following the eight-day Operation Pillar of Defense, which took place in November 2012, the Tourism Ministry implemented an intensive marketing and advertising campaign that facilitated a swift and consistent recovery in both incoming and domestic tourism.
Last year ended in a record 3.54 million visitors, and the upward trend continued into the first half of 2014,” says the source.
The ministry, along with the various restaurant owners, hotel managers and taxi drivers, believes that “resilience will be seen in the tourism industry following Operation Protective Edge” and that soon enough, a sense of normalcy will return to Jerusalem, and the buzz of new visitors will return to Israel.