Where have all the tourists gone?

Passover is traditionally a time when visitors flood Jerusalem – yet the streets and hotels this year are relatively empty.

Lots of elbow room in the plaza near Jaffa Gate in the Old City (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Lots of elbow room in the plaza near Jaffa Gate in the Old City
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Zvika Livneh was guiding a couple of foreign tourists towards Zedekiah’s Cave, near the Damascus Gate, when he suddenly realized that the woman was no longer listening to him, but staring at the scene behind his back. Two Border Police officers were holding a Palestinian, while a third soldier aimed his gun at him.
“This is a terrible image for a tourist,” says Livneh.
“You can’t expect people who want to plan some nice vacation to come to a place where they are exposed to this kind of situation, even if they are religious persons yearning to visit the Holy Land.”
The soldiers on guard at almost every corner around and inside the Old City; the terrorist attacks; the still-present fear; and above all, the travel alerts issued by most countries to their citizens planning a journey to the region – these are some of the multiple reasons for it, but it all adds up to a significant drop in the number of tourists who dare to come here.
“There are tourists in the streets of the Old City, most of them Christian pilgrims from South America and Asia, and of course Jews who come here to celebrate Passover, but the numbers are very low,” says Livneh.
“Like the period of the second intifada in 2000, it will take time – and some political movement on the ground – until we again see a return of the great numbers of tourists we used to have here.”
The lack of tourists in the city is not only linked to foreigners – Jewish and Christian – but also to Israelis, who are avoiding Jerusalem at this time. Ishay Barnea, manager of the Yehuda Hotel near the Tisch Family Biblical Zoo and president of the city’s hotel association, agrees that the drop is significant and painful.
“We know that to the north and south of us, guest houses and resorts are full for this period of the year, mostly but not only with Israelis, including families with children.
Yet in Jerusalem we barely reach 65- to 75-percent occupancy, even on Passover Eve, compared to some 85% to 90% in past years.”
All parties concerned agree that the authorities – especially the municipality – are sincerely attempting to help, but the bottom line is that restaurants, coffee shops and bars are closing one after another, and hotels are mostly half-empty, in a period in which usually one cannot get a room in any hotel.
“We have tried to assist, and we are still doing whatever can be done to assist,” says Deputy Mayor Ofer Berkowitz (Hitorerut), who holds the Culture portfolio, “but the situation is difficult and tourists, including Israelis, simply avoid coming here.”
Drawing from almost three decades of experience, Ze’ev Back, a tour guide who brings visitors here from abroad, also points to the different authorities as bearing some of the responsibility for the present situation – because of factors such as the lack of easy conveyance of tourists and their buses to key tourist sites in the capital.
Back agrees that highly charged situation in Jerusalem’s streets since the Rosh Hashana terrorist attacks has changed the reality on the ground. He stresses that even though the statistics provided by the authorities are not reliable for several reasons – such as instances of Israelis who enter the country with foreign passports and are therefore misleadingly considered tourists – the important thing is to understand how pilgrims (perhaps the largest portion of foreign tourists) plan their journey here.
“Tourists and pilgrims from the US won’t go to the Bethlehem hotels, or even to hotels located on the east side of Jerusalem. Hotels like Olive Tree and Grand Court (on the seam between the two parts of the city) have special tariffs for pilgrims, through which they gain a lot of patronage from such groups. Russian pilgrims will always prefer small hotels in the Old City, but mostly, they will go to monasteries or church guest houses.
“Generally speaking, it is difficult to get a clear idea of the situation on the ground in regard to foreign tourist figures.”
Back confirms the feeling shared by many here that “the streets in the Old City are far from being packed with tourists, especially if you compare them to what we usually have here in April. Hotel occupancy is low, tourist guides have little work and the tourist shops are almost empty. I can say that there hasn’t been a real recovery since Operation Protective Edge in summer 2014, and now the ‘knife intifada’ has destroyed much of the 2016 season.”
The municipality is well aware of the situation, and all the parties agree that nobody is indifferent to it at Safra Square. Yet the concern hasn’t – for the moment – produced the hoped-for results.
“What we need is more serious support,” says Alon, who stands at the entrance of his tourist souvenir shop on Ben-Yehuda Street in the city center.
“We could really use a significant reduction in our taxes right now; that would help much more than most of the municipality’s initiatives. And perhaps a little more clean ing wouldn’t hurt.”
Line Djamchid, together with her husband Yuval, manages a small picturesque hotel and restaurant in the Arnona neighborhood. She confirms that the drop in reservations for this season is a serious one.
“In previous years, we used to have a full house for the eve of Passover and during Hol Hamoed. This year we are full only for the first night of the holiday, and it is a problem that Israelis aren’t coming either. Foreign tourists come for one day to Jerusalem and then they leave for Bethlehem or even to Jordan.
“You might feel that the city is full of visitors and see tourists’ cars, but the hotels remain almost empty. For example, I have a group of bicycle riders from Switzerland who come every year, a group of 35 to 40 people. This year, only 10 of them are coming.”
Djamchid adds that she struggles not only with the lack of guests, but with the lack of coherence between several sections inside the municipality.
“We submitted a request for support from the special fund created by the government and the city to help businesses harmed by the situation. That’s nice – aside from the terrible bureaucracy – but as soon as we were informed that we were entitled to get the assistance, we were required by the business permits administration and some other sections to pay taxes that we until now had the right to postpone.
“So what’s the use of this help, if we immediately have to pay it back for taxes? What kind of support is that?” Moreover, one of the conditions to obtain the special support grant was to prove that the owners had indeed spent money to improve the conditions of their businesses, such as additional furniture and the like.
“What improvements?” asks Djamchid in despair.
“Since Operation Protective Edge we have barely been surviving here. As small businesses, we don’t have a strong chain backing us in case of difficult times, so what is this nonsense about investing in the business?” “AS LONG as the political situation is the same, tourists will not come back here,” asserts Livneh.
“Most of the tourists prepared their trip months ago, and if travel alerts remain in place and the news is full of reports of stabbings and the like, people will continue to cancel or avoid considering Israel as a destination for their planned trip.
“Easter, for example, is not only an opportunity for a pilgrimage, it is a two-week vacation in most Western countries, including South America. Why would they spend these holidays in a place where they might be attacked or harmed?” “The possibility to decide at the last moment is one reserved for Israelis,” he clarifies. “They follow the news; if things calm down for a couple of days, they might change their mind and decide to come to Jerusalem. However, for tourists from South America or Europe or Asia, it is too late, it’s not realistic to expect them to plan their trip that way. We are losing them.”
Asked what could change the situation in his view, Livneh says that any report on an eventual meeting between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas could change things.
“Unfortunately, I don’t see it happening soon.”
Meanwhile, at Safra Square and among the hotel owners and managers, together with the tourism section at the Jerusalem Development Authority, new solutions or eventual new attractions are brought to the table almost every day.
“I’m trying to help as much as I can,” says Deputy Mayor Berkowitz.
“Last week, I organized a meeting between hotel managers and representatives of the Groupon company to try to attract tourists with bonuses and the like. It’s a good opportunity, it may help, but of course, it is a serious problem.
We need to do more to bring the tourists back.”
Among other attempts to improve the situation, many hotels have lowered their prices or improved the package deals they offer. Tourists who do come here may discover with pleasure that they get more for a lower price – but that doesn’t apply to all Jerusalem hotels.
Luxurious and large hotels have not gone in that direction; for those, the situation is slightly different.
“Most of them belong to a chain – they can absorb the losses in Jerusalem, while other hotels of the chain in other part of the country are full – but small, private hotels are barely surviving and they need more support,” admits Berkowitz.
In answer to the question as to what else the municipality could do to ameliorate the situation, he mentions the series of outdoor events in the city center, all free, that may attract visitors – such as the Sounds of the Old City Festival, which attracted thousands of people.
Unfortunately, fewer foreign tourists are coming. As for the Israelis, they have not stopped going on vacations, they have just changed their destination. Instead of a city where you might be stabbed while visiting a historic site or sipping a coffee in a cafe, many are choosing the country’s North or South – where the hotels are all full, even before Passover has begun.