The Travel Adviser: Now is the winter of our discontent

Everyone in the tourism industry will be delighted with any increase.

An aerial view of Jerusalem’s city center. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
An aerial view of Jerusalem’s city center.
The title is a reference to the first two lines of William Shakespeare’s Richard III: “Now is the winter of our discontent/Made glorious summer by this sun of York.”
Yes, I’m aware Shakespeare scholars will criticize me for using the word “sun” instead of “son.”
While casual theatergoers might interpret these lines as a negative comment, the true meaning is one of unbridled optimism following a radiant summer.
In our country, no such debate need take place.
After a summer of war, we are now entering a winter of discontent, with terrorism and its barbaric attacks affecting our daily lives. When it comes to tourism, the mere threat of terrorism has scared off all but the hardiest.
I reiterate: Tourism and terrorism do not mix.
No name has been given to the latest and constant threat of violence. Personally, I prefer to describe it as the “Jerusalem intifada” though of course, random terrorist acts have taken place elsewhere.
Yet as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu recently said, “We’re in the midst of a terrorist offensive focusing on Jerusalem.”
Back on July 8, when Israel launched Operation Protective Edge, tourism to the Land of Milk and Honey plummeted. By the time the open-ended cease-fire was declared on August 26, the damage was formidable. Occupancy rates at Israeli hotels plunged to record lows. Future bookings were nonexistent and other than the High Holy Days and the upcoming Christmas season, few tourists were planning on visiting Israel.
Tour operators and hotel executives collectively realized that while 2014 was a washout, 2015 could be capitalized upon, providing quiet and security pervaded throughout the rest of the world.
The advent and increasing frequency of attacks, combined with extensive press coverage and the knee-jerk reaction of several foreign governments that issued warnings about traveling to Jerusalem, have left the city’s tourist industry reeling. A press release from the Jerusalem Hotel Association stated that most hotels are averaging barely 40-percent occupancy, compared to the far healthier 65%-70% average rates during this time of year. Inquiries for future bookings remain few and far between, and the reality is that the mere perception there is no solution to be found has profoundly affected potential tourists.
The strategy thus must be to increase internal tourism to Israel’s capital. Readers of this column have often contacted me bemoaning the high price of hotels in Israel and postulating that if rates dropped dramatically, the hotels would find their rooms filled. Sadly, most of Israel’s hotel executives either believe in miracles as Hanukkah approaches or simply presume that holding steadfast, their expensive rates will find a naïve audience.
Several hotel executives believe the mere fact they offer good service with a great product will entice Israelis to visit the capital. Blithely commenting that there is violence everywhere, they have maintained that Israelis and tourists will elect to stay in Jerusalem regardless of the strained environment.
Indeed, new deluxe properties have recently opened up, shimmering in the Jerusalem twilight, which offer levels of decadence rarely seen to date in the Holy City. Management of the Waldorf Astoria, the capital’s newest deluxe hotel, hold constant in their staunch view that tourists will pay the nearly $600 daily rate, in spite of the ongoing violence.
Many hotel chains are offering their normal 10% winter discount, in the feeble hope that the winter events planned for the city will entice visitors.
Assisting them in this endeavor, the Jerusalem Municipality and tourism bureaus are using all their resources to convince Israelis and foreign tourists to come to the city now and support its businesses. A wide range of activities are being planned for December, from cultural events to weekend tours; hotels are participating by offering reduced rates for meals at their properties, and the vast majority of the events will be free or charge a nominal fee.
Time will shortly tell if this marketing plan is successful.
Yet anecdotal evidence does not bode well: There appears to be a drop of nearly 80% in the number of Israeli tourists visiting Jerusalem. I have had too many friends hold events, from a bar mitzva at the Western Wall to a surprise birthday party in a movie theater in the heart of the city, at which friends and family from Tel Aviv were no-shows.
Tour guides report a near absence of work because of the situation.
Airlines, too, have reacted cautiously. Few have elected to stop flying to Israel, but have simply cut their frequency from daily flights to thrice weekly or even less. Plans to initiate new routes, such as Easy Jet flying from Paris to Tel Aviv, have been shelved in favor of commencing in the spring.
El Al, in particular, is the worst-affected airline.
This is clear in comparison to United Airlines, which averages over 5,300 flights a day including twice-daily flights between Newark and Tel Aviv.
Losing revenue from a dearth of incoming tourists to Israel will have a near-zero effect on their bottom line. In fact, as United Airlines focuses more on the Israeli side of the equation and the burgeoning business enterprises between the US and Israel, it may barely feel a dip in its passenger load statistics.
El Al can find no such solace. Its budgeted income will continue to plunge as tourists from afar, such as South Africa and the UK, elect not to visit Israel.
Its only option is to reduce fares in the local market, in the furtive hope Israelis will fill the planes. Unfortunately, the moment El Al announces a price reduction, the other airlines match it – thus canceling out any advantage.
This leads us to a small glimmering of hope. Like Rumpelstiltskin spinning straw into gold, a delicacy from a country known more for its leader’s proclamations of hatred for Israel has arisen. Lokum is a family of confections based on a gel of starch and sugar. Usually consisting of chopped dates and nuts bound by the gels and generally flavored with rosewater, the confection is often packaged and eaten in small cubes dusted with icing sugar. This delectable desert is more commonly called Turkish Delight.
Delighted and dazed was the Israeli reaction when the Turkish tourism association announced that it aims to send 100,000 Turkish tourists to Israel next year to promote peace.
“One of the synonyms of tourism is peace. We want to make a contribution to maintaining peace in Jerusalem by increasing the numbers of tourists there,” said Basaran Ulusoy, head of the Association of Turkish Travel Agencies. He went on to point out that only a mere 10,000-15,000 Turks traveled to Jerusalem in 2014, but he has high hopes the number can be increased almost tenfold.
“We want to increase this number to 100,000 in 2015 by preparing special package tours to Jerusalem with the help of the promotional activities of the Tourism Ministry,” Ulusoy said, noting that Turkey’s airline companies will also start discounted flights to the city. This is in addition to the fact that Turkish Airlines and Pegasus Air, the two dominant Turkish airlines flying to Israel, already fly nearly 40 times a week between Tel Aviv and Istanbul.
Remaining an optimist in our troubled times is never easy and while I believe Ulusoy’s goal to be a pipe dream, I applaud his desire.
Keep in mind that with over 1.3 million travelers over the first 10 months of 2014, including Israelis and tourists, the US is Israel’s No.1 partner. Close behind, though, is Turkey – which saw over 1 million travelers pass through its airports. The emphasis, however, is on the word “pass” – as over 80% of those 1 million travelers simply used Istanbul as a conduit for switching planes to far-flung destinations.
Germany, Italy and Russia make up the next three countries topping the list in 2014.
In fact, those five countries produced over 5 million travelers in the first 10 months of 2014, numbers that make tourism a vital entity to governments around the world.
So while 100,000 tourists may sound like a drop in the bucket, everyone in the tourism industry will be delighted with any increase.
The writer is CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments: [email protected]