A disquieting quiet

Tourism in Tel Aviv slowed to a trickle during the Gaza conflict, dealing a harsh blow to hotels, restaurants and nightlife.

Tourism in Tel Aviv slowed to a trickle during the Gaza conflict, dealing a harsh blow to hotels, restaurants and nightlife (photo credit: REUTERS)
Tourism in Tel Aviv slowed to a trickle during the Gaza conflict, dealing a harsh blow to hotels, restaurants and nightlife
(photo credit: REUTERS)
J acob Fiddler has always been somewhat different. Growing up in Chicago, he knew he was going to end up in the military. After dreaming of enlisting in the Marines, he found himself on a bus transporting dozens of young Israelis to basic training, where he would eventually prepare for a three-year stint in the Nahal infantry brigade.
“Being in the military is great,” he says. “You don’t have to worry about what you’re going to wear, what you’re going to eat. And it’s the safest place you could be. Can you imagine being on the other side and looking at a row of 40,000 soldiers and dozens of tanks lined up? I’d be scared.”
As a soldier, that swashbuckling attitude came in very handy. Now, however, Fiddler, 28, is a night manager at Mike’s Place, the semi-outdoor bar that faces the Tel Aviv promenade.
While throngs of highly motivated Israeli soldiers may spell doom for the enemy, it usually augurs a time of apprehension and turmoil, as the country witnessed this past month with the incessant rocket attacks, the reverberations of which were felt even here.
“This is my office,” says Fiddler, arms outstretched, looking out toward the sea. “Who else gets to come to work to this view?” Fiddler’s “office” is indeed unique.
What can arguably be considered the de facto epicenter of Tel Aviv’s tourist nightlife, Mike’s Place is the place to be for visitors looking to unwind after a long day of touring.
“Working at the bar, you’ll have someone from England, from Ireland, from Israel, from God knows where around the world, and they’re actually from there,” he says. “Here you meet first-generation immigrants, you meet people on business traveling through, people who come here after a night out of dining in one of the restaurants here. It’s like an airport here.”
Yet, not even Fiddler’s can-do spirit could have prepared his “office” for the financial blow that was inflicted on it by the war in Gaza and the dearth of tourists that was the unfortunate by-product.
“It’s been real quiet this past month,” says Fiddler, against the backdrop of a lounge singer belting out Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” in a thick Israeli accent.
Fiddler, who has worked at Mike’s Place for three years, laments how this summer seemed poised to be a bonanza for tourist-friendly establishments.
“Before the war, we had the World Cup, which couldn’t have come at a better time,” he says. “It was towards the end of the World Cup that everything kind of started happening [in Gaza and the South]. From that day, things dropped dramatically. It’s been dead slow.”
Fiddler says that Mike’s Place has done its best not to lay off employees during this period.
“We try to find innovative ways to create shifts for the waiters,” he says.
“If we don’t need three servers on the floor at the same time, we’ll send two of them out with flyers to maybe try to pull in a sort of business that we don’t normally get.”
Since tourists have largely stayed away, the managers of Mike’s Place hope that the locals will take a liking to the bar’s friendly ambience.
“Israelis still go out drinking,” Fiddler says. “They’ll go out to Florentin [in south Tel Aviv], and they’ll go to the center of Tel Aviv. It’s still busy there. Israelis do go out. Unfortunately, because we are a tourist bar and tourism has been suffering, that means we are also suffering with it.”
The beachfront promenade is usually bustling during the summer months. Visitors patronize the row of high-end hotels and low-cost hostels that abut the coast; youngsters are frequently seen enjoying water pipe and beer as they take in the waves from their seats dug in on the nearby sands; and the east end of Allenby Street has earned a reputation for nonstop nightlife that caters to the English-speaking crowd, with British and Irish-themed pubs offering their services.
According to statistics provided by the Tourism Ministry, more than 2.8 million tourists visited Israel in 2013.
Of those, two-thirds went to Tel Aviv and nearly half spent at least one night in the city. On average, tourists stayed 3.1 nights in Tel Aviv. Just prior to the outbreak of hostilities in the South, 1.9 million tourists had visited Israel this year, which represents a 13 percent jump from the same period last year (12% more than in 2012 and 15% more than in 2011).
Yossi Elbaz can only look back with nostalgia, while hoping that the situation will revert back to those relatively heady days. A cab driver from Bat Yam, he has seen his income drop by half during the past month.
“All the cab drivers have taken a hit, not just me,” he says. “In a good month, I’d earn NIS 10,000. Now I’m lucky if I get to NIS 5,000.”
Having driven a taxi for 35 years, Elbaz is now forced to work 12-hour shifts to make ends meet. On a humid, sweltering August night, he pulls over to the side of Herbert Samuel Street, waiting for someone – anyone – to hail him.
According to the Tourism Ministry, the downward trend is undeniable. In July, 218,000 tourists came to Israel, a 26% drop from July 2013. It is the lowest recorded figure for July since 2007, when 214,000 visitors arrived.
While one would be hard-pressed to find visitors from abroad in post-war Tel Aviv, there is no mistake that the “first Hebrew city” – or at least what seems to be the few square kilometers that encompass Dizengoff, Ben-Yehuda, and Hayarkon streets – has surrendered to the French invasion, rockets be damned.
Samuel Amar of Paris is one of thousands of young French Jews who descend on Israel every summer. For him, the mere thought that Kassam rockets would keep him away seems far-fetched.
“I’m more scared walking around Paris with a yarmulke,” he says. “I feel very much at home here. I don’t think there’s a future for the Jews in France. In 20 years, there won’t be any Jews left there.”
Paradoxically, the anti-Semitism that has taken root in France – and which is amplified whenever there is an uptick in Israeli-Palestinian strife – may be the saving grace for the local tourism industry. One cannot enter a pizzeria, restaurant, hotel, convenience store or a McDonald’s near the Tel Aviv beach without hearing French.
“This is our country,” says Anaelle Fitoussi, a law student who lives in the 19th arrondissement of the French capital. “I come here every year with my parents. Hearing about the war on the news didn’t scare me at all. It’s worse in Paris than it is here.”
Both Fitoussi and Amar say that they are made to feel foreign in their native country not just by virtue of their Jewishness but also by their families’ North African origins. Fitoussi’s grandparents are from Tunisia, while Amar’s family traces its roots to Algeria. In Tel Aviv, French Jews of North African extraction can wear kippot and walk to synagogue without fear of attracting untoward attention.
Londoners are not nearly as timorous to express their Jewishness – at least according to a few who summoned the courage to board a flight to Ben-Gurion Airport while many would-be visitors have stayed away.
“I was quite scared to come here,” says Lizzie, a British Jew who declined to give her last name. “The cease-fire put me more at ease. I also read a lot of articles in the press before I came here. I wanted to make sure there wasn’t anything too bad going on.
Also, I spoke to people here and they said that everything was going on as normal, that it’s not that scary. Being able to speak to people who are actually here helped a lot.”
“We’ve been here for a week now,” says David Rabee, a native of north London. “I wasn’t afraid to come here. As it stands, more people have died in car accidents than by rockets.
We’re not going to Gaza.”
Rabee says that he and his friends travel to Israel every summer, which makes him immune to the international press coverage, which he says paints a bleaker picture of what is going on than the reality would indicate.
Rabee’s sister, Nicole, says that the Gaza conflict has “brought anti-Israel sentiment up to the surface” back home, although the “Jewish bubble” of north London has kept them largely insulated from the backlash. Nonetheless, she and her friends felt it was important to travel to Israel even during these tumultuous times.
“It is important to come here and support Israel now, since it has lost a lot of tourists,” she says.
“In all my years coming here, it’s quieter this year than it’s ever been,” David says. “Unfortunately, it’s so unnecessary because there’s a cease-fire now. It’s safe here. In a way, it’s even safer here than in London.”
Ironically, Lizzie says that Londoners are more aware of the regional tensions when they are back home, since they rely on news reports from the Guardian and the BBC. When traveling in Israel, however, they disengage from news coverage, thus the security situation is farther from their minds.
“You couldn’t tell there’s a war going on by walking around here,” she says.
In light of foreigners’ trepidation about coming to Israel, the Tourism Ministry has launched a campaign designed to encourage Israelis to forgo traveling abroad this summer in favor of “staycations” – i.e., staying in the country to boost domestic tourism.
“We are fighting on two fronts in this war,” says Tourism Minister Uzi Landau. “There’s the military front, with our finest conscript and reserve soldiers, and the economic front, in which every citizen in Israel is engaged either as employees who are driving the economy or as consumers in every branch of the economy.”
The hotel industry was hit particularly hard. According to the financial daily Globes, the three major hotel groups listed on the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange – Dan Hotels Corp., Rimonim Hotels and Africa Israel Hotels – reported steep drops in revenue as a result of the Gaza operation.
“The Israel Hotel Association is taking determined measures to make sure that the state will provide assistance to the hotel industry following the severe damage suffered by hotels in almost all regions in Israel,” says a source at Rimonim’s parent company, Israel Land Development.