According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, a record number of 4.5 million tourists visited Israel in 2019, accounting for an income of US $7.6 billion – 5.9% of the gross domestic product.
Expectations were high that 2020 would be a bumper year for incoming tourism. Since last March, many people, especially those connected to tourism, have seen their livelihoods disappear overnight. In addition to the near collapse of the airline and hotel industry, local tour guides have been made redundant with incoming travel currently at a standstill.
I have been guiding in Jerusalem for more than 20 years through good times and bad. Tourism has always been directly affected by regional conflicts, but nothing prepared us for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Wandering around Jerusalem’s Old City just before Christmas, the impact was clear to see. The usually bustling alleyways were almost empty. Most shops and restaurants were shuttered, with merchants left to stare at the empty streets and wonder who was going to purchase their wares.
Thousands of families who depend on tourism have been impacted by the pandemic, with no clear end in sight.
I strolled along Christian Quarter Road, one of my favorite streets. It is a relatively broad thoroughfare with small, family-run shops offering an array of merchandise from Syrian fabrics and handmade ceramics to religious souvenirs and antiquities. I spoke with one of the shopkeepers, Zak Mishirky, who owns Zak’s Antiquities (www.zaksantiquities.com).
Mishirky describes himself as a Christian Jerusalemite whose family has lived here for more than 300 years. Born in east Jerusalem, he is the oldest of four children and the father of two girls. Starting at the age of 14, he has worked after school to provide financial support for his family. After successfully working in hotels, he left to work full-time in his family’s souvenir shop.
By the end of the 1990s, he took over the running of the store, changing its focus to biblical antiquities and Christian handicrafts. Zak is an instantly likeable young man. He happily shares his knowledge of the Bible as it relates to items in his store. He tells me about his olive wood carvings which are a local specialty.
“In the mid-19th century, English missionaries came to the Holy Land and saw the need to teach Arab Christians skills so they could support their families – one of these crafts being olive wood carving,” he says. “Today money from sales in my store goes directly to the descendants of the original families.”
Over the years, he has built up excellent relationships with American tour leaders and leading academics in the field of antiquities and Bible studies who share his faith and recognize his expertise in antique coins and artifacts.
Zak shows me an oil lamp from the time of King David, a Jewish coin from the revolt against the Romans dated 68 CE, and a gold-mounted “Widow’s Mite” – a bronze coin from the 1st century BCE. He is licensed by the Israel Antiquities Authority, a prerequisite to legally trade in ancient artifacts.
The lack of tourists and passing trade has forced Mishirky, like many others, to change their business model to online sales. Zak plans to maintain close business connections with his customers from around the world who appreciate his honesty and exceptional customer service.
For those interested in purchashing one of his “Gifts from Jerusalem” from his shop, he says, go to zaksjerusalemgifts.com.
The roll-out of the vaccine gives us hope that we’ll see tourists returning to Israel by the summer. Zoom tours are no replacement for the real thing! We miss you!■
The writer is Jerusalem-based tour guide. (www.touringwithmadeleine.blogspot.com)