Is Turkey safe for Israeli tourists yet?

TRAVEL AFFAIRS: Constantinople, the ancient name for Istanbul prior to the Ottoman Empire, will not be revived. But having a holiday in Turkey will.

 TOURISTS, SOME from Israel, enjoy at a resort in Antalya, in southern Turkey, last week. (photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)
TOURISTS, SOME from Israel, enjoy at a resort in Antalya, in southern Turkey, last week.
(photo credit: YOSSI ALONI/FLASH90)

Let us be very clear: Terrorism represents an ongoing threat to tourists and tourist infrastructures. Even if the attacks against tourists are relatively infrequent, their human and economic impacts are often very significant. There are almost no years without an attack against touristic targets somewhere in the world, in relation to local or global conflicts.

We are approaching the six-year anniversary of the Istanbul airport attack. The Ataturk Airport attack, consisting of shootings and suicide bombings, occurred on June 28, 2016. Gunmen armed with automatic weapons and explosive belts staged a simultaneous attack at the international terminal. Three terrorists and 45 innocent bystanders were killed, with more than 230 people wounded.

Shortly before 10 p.m. Istanbul time, two assailants approached the X-ray scanner at a security checkpoint and opened fire. Police officers returned fire, and the assailants detonated bombs on their persons.

During and immediately after the attacks, hundreds of passengers and people inside the airport hid anywhere they could – in shops, washrooms, and under benches. Two of the terrorists detonated explosive devices, killing themselves; one other was killed, presumably by security forces.

Media reports indicated that the three terrorists were believed by Turkish officials to have come from Russia. Turkish officials said the attackers were acting on behalf of Islamic State.

 Tourists visit the Celsius Library in the ancient city of Ephesus near Izmir in the western Aegean region, Turkey August 5, 2018. Picture taken August 5, 2018.  (credit: REUTERS/SERTAC KAYAR) Tourists visit the Celsius Library in the ancient city of Ephesus near Izmir in the western Aegean region, Turkey August 5, 2018. Picture taken August 5, 2018. (credit: REUTERS/SERTAC KAYAR)

Following the attack, all departure flights were suspended, but the arrival flights remained operational for some time, until they were diverted. Almost simultaneously the FAA suspended all Turkish flights into and out of the United States for about five hours, allowing only the 10 flights that were already in the air during the attack to land in the US. All the flights suspended were Turkish Airlines flights.

It is believed that between eight and 14 aircraft from numerous airlines were at the terminal during the attack. None of the aircraft was ever in danger, nor were any of them damaged during the attack.

Of the 45 victims, 23 were Turkish nationals, six carried Saudi Arabian passports, while three victims had Palestinian passports. There were no Israeli citizens among the dead.

Almost six years have passed, and Turkey sees itself once more under a cloud of terrorists. This time Iran is pulling the strings. This time the target is not random tourists at the international airport but the thousands of Israelis who chose to vacation in Turkey.

The Turkish government and the Israeli government are aware of the threats and are working together to subvert the attacks. Israeli ministers have made strident and constant pleas that all Israelis should leave Turkey and return home immediately.

Senior Israeli ministers have warned Iran repeatedly that Israel will not sit by idly while its citizens are being threatened by an Iranian hit squad. Defense Minister Benny Gantz vowed retaliation for any Iranian attack in Turkey. The prime minister, while fighting for his job, minced no words: “Those who send terrorists to attack Israelis will pay the price.” The Israelis in Turkey have been told to lock themselves in their hotel rooms, or not to go out with their phones, due to GPS tracking.

“Iranians on hunt to harm Israelis in Turkey,” read a Ynet headline. “Tehran orders terror squads in Turkey to kill and capture Israelis at all cost.”

Israel’s National Security Council warned: “In light of the escalation in Iranian intentions to harm Israelis in Turkey, with an emphasis on Istanbul, the National Security Council is calling on Israelis staying in Istanbul to leave the city as soon as possible. There is a moderate threat warning for the rest of Turkey, and it is recommended that Israelis also avoid travel that is not essential to the rest of Turkey.”

Logic would assume that El Al and Israir are sending rescue flights to assist in the evacuation of all Israelis stuck in the crosshairs. No doubt Turkish security forces have arranged transportation to the airport so that no harm can come to the Israeli tourist.

Sadly, like the Turkish dessert baklava, the layers of stubbornness among Israelis remain quite flaky in their decision-making process. Thousands of Israeli tourists remain in Turkey, and every day hundreds more join them.

Most of us are aware of the fight-or-flight response (also known as the acute stress response), which is a physiological reaction that occurs when we are in the presence of something that is mentally or physically terrifying. The term “fight-or-flight” represents the choices that our ancestors had when faced with danger in their environments. They could either fight or flee. In either case, the physiological and psychological responses to stress prepare the body to react to the danger.

So why, with such a viable threat in existence, would any rational person decide to remain in Turkey or plan a trip there?

Media reports revel in the clips of Israelis insisting that they feel safe in the Istanbul Grand Bazaar; that the shopkeepers love to speak to them in Hebrew and respect their bargaining skills. Families state unequivocally that they paid a lot of money for their holidays, and that without compensation they won’t leave their resorts. What unmitigated poppycock!

Yes, Israel often considers itself a light among the nations, but such collective behavior raises questions about our cognitive abilities.

General tourism is very sensitive to the occurrence of terrorist attacks, even though this stands in stark contrast to the extremely low probability of getting hurt in an act of terrorism. Evidence suggests that the high sensitivity of tourists to acts of terrorism is due to the ability to choose another tourist destination rather than risk an attack.

Bucking this trend, Israeli tourists continually choose among destinations that are potentially subject to terror activity.

This correlates with the constant terrorist threat that exists in Israel. Rockets from Gaza, knife attacks in the Old City and suicide attacks have been part of the day-to-day life in Israel for years. Rarely has it affected incoming tourists flying to our country. Birthright groups in the tens of thousands are descending upon Israel with security guards present on all the buses. Hotels are always vigilant at the entrances to their properties, and by and large the overall atmosphere in Israel remains one of a safe and secure country to visit.

This calming effect on tourists resonates among Israelis. Few Israelis are reticent about visiting the Old City; still fewer avoid trains or buses. We have been trained since birth to be vigilant toward everyone. It’s ingrained in our DNA that if you see something, you say something.

Ukraine vs Turkey

I HAVEN’T sold a single ticket to Ukraine in two months. Yes, I have sold dozens of tickets to the Ukraine borders, all for passengers involved in medical or humanitarian assistance. Many have expressed a bit of concern, but have been told they will be safe on their journeys, with the trip operating on a “get in, get out” principle.

Travel to Turkey, on the other hand, continues unabated – not a torrent, as was the case prior to the discovery of the Iranian cell, but neither is it a trickle, as one might have presumed.

The Israeli authorities’ message became muddled when the IDF sent five fencers who still serve in the army to travel to Turkey for the European Championships, while other officials demanded that all Israelis depart forthwith.

Leaving aside the mindset of those electing to continue their holidays in Turkey, let us address those who are reticent to board a plane to Turkey.

Turkish Airlines has six flights a day to Istanbul, with the majority of them quite full. They are usually serviced by an Airbus 320 plane, averaging 120 passengers a flight. That means 720 passengers touch down at Istanbul airport.

It is not the same Istanbul airport that experienced the horrific terrorist attack, and the security situation has been completely revamped. Entrance to the airport is heavily policed, and the international terminal where the vast majority of Israeli passengers transit from one plane to another has even more armed forces. In fact, over 75% of Israeli passengers on every Turkish Air flight from Tel Aviv do not end their trips in Turkey but, rather, use it as a way station at which to board another plane to fly far beyond Turkish borders. Turkish Air flies daily, for example, to 12 cities in the United States alone.

Do I cancel my flight?

There is no logical reason to cancel tickets on Turkish Airlines at this time. The security on the plane and at the airport rivals that of the vast majority of airlines. Turkish Airlines’ service on board receives excellent reviews. Your luggage will be checked straight through to your final destination, and when transferring flights, reassurance will come from the multitude of armed forces throughout the gargantuan airport. If you have access to the airline’s business lounge, you will feel like a child in a candy store with the multitude of choices to while away your time.

FOR THOSE who had booked a holiday to Turkey, options do exist for you to extricate yourself from any financial burdens that canceling your trip may entail. First off, Turkish Airlines has informed the flying public that anyone with tickets through August 30 of this year can postpone their trip until the end of the year. If that does not work, the airline will let you change it up to one year from the day the ticket was issued. And if you decide you want to cancel completely, most of the tickets carry a $40 cancellation fee.

The large hotel chains in Turkey have also announced they will allow passengers to freeze their bookings for another time period or, if the chains are notified more than 24 hours in advance, they will take no cancellation fee. Rental car companies all have waived any cancellation fees. All the major tour operators in Turkey have agreed to make changes with no cost.

Remember, we are not talking about an increased global risk of terrorism. No country is immune from a terrorist attack, and no person is immune from becoming a victim of an attack. Terrorists have little regard for civilian casualties, and, in many cases, attacks are designed to maximize casualties.

Perhaps you subscribe to the fight outlook. I have heard multiple times the arguments for traveling with such a high terrorist threat.

Johanna Read in her World Nomads blog asserts:

“Attacks by extremist groups like al-Qaeda are random and impossible to predict. It is also unlikely for an attack to happen in the same place twice.

“In most cases, one of the safest places in the world is a city that has recently had a terrorist attack. Everyone – officials and citizens – is hypervigilant. No suspicious package or unattended backpack is left unnoticed. No one is allowed into an important tourist site without their camera x-rayed, their water bottle examined, and their person metal-detected.

“Whenever I visit a major destination that could be the target of attack, I do three things slightly differently:

“I avoid big crowds and especially demonstrations.

“I try to avoid lingering near cars parked at major monuments (it’s pretty easy to plant a car bomb).

“I go out of my way to share on social media that I feel safe and am enjoying my visit at the destination.

“That’s about it. I base these actions on the goals of terrorism and the facts behind risk.”

All sound advice, which millions of tourists subscribe to.

The threat will subside; the cell will be caught. Nobody can say if it will be in one month or in six months, but it is not a permanent solution. Israelis do have a choice of where they can vacation. Turkey is not the only country they can fly into; it’s not the only country with beautiful properties, wonderful hotels, and a competitive shopping market.

The world has reopened. Constantinople, the ancient name for Istanbul prior to the Ottoman Empire, will not be revived. But having a holiday in Turkey will. The country isn’t going anywhere; the Bosporus is not drying up. One of the most famous Turkish proverbs translates to: “As time passes, all the troubles we experience are forgotten.”

The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem, and a director at Diesenhaus. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]