My Word: Think tourism, not terror

"You can even pick up that cute soldier from the beach, but don’t take her home with you. She belongs here and the country still needs her."

Tel Aviv beach 370 (photo credit: Reuters Photographer / Reuters)
Tel Aviv beach 370
(photo credit: Reuters Photographer / Reuters)
On the face of it, the Tourism Ministry picked a helluva time to launch a campaign asking Israelis to personally invite visitors from overseas to come and experience the country firsthand. The face, by the way, is definitely a pretty one: The campaign stars the multi-talented actress and producer Noa Tishby describing how with one click (of the computer kind), patriotic citizens can do their bit for the economy (and the country’s image) by boosting the tourism trade.
Unlike many colleagues, I supported the ill-fated Immigrant Absorption Ministry ads last year encouraging expats to return home; before that, I refused to ridicule the do-it-yourself Masbirim public diplomacy effort which was meant to provide material and guidance to individual Israeli travelers and trekkers; and ahead of Rosh Hashana, I not only dutifully but with a great deal of pleasure sent personalized greetings for the Jewish New Year to my real and virtual friends via Facebook – the same friends, I assume, I am now meant to urge to come over and see me some time.
My hesitation with the latest campaign is not so much the timing as the crass attempts at humor (you have to be Israeli to find the images in this campaign funny, or even to understand them.
It’s not the Hebrew; it’s the mind-set). I’m also not sure what my friends would say were I to send them a very nice invitation but with no help in funding the proposed trip (how about discounts in hotels, restaurants and major tourism sites for those who answer the call?).
The least of the problems, I have concluded, is the timing. As far as I’m concerned, any time you can come here is a good time – even though there seems to be another mini-war going on in our particular corner of the world (a corner, certainly not God-forsaken whatever else you want to say about it).
As so many of the ads starring Tishby pop up between the footage of damage from megastorm Sandy in the US and the Palestinian shelling in the Israeli South, I can’t help but recall what an astute teenager once pointed out to me during a tour of the communities bordering Gaza: “Nowhere’s safe, but this is my home.”
In fact, a few years ago a tornado hit Toronto during the same time that I hit the town. The recommended safety measures – take cover in the basement and follow instructions via the media – sounded very similar to those drilled into Israeli schoolchildren in the event of a missile attack. I’m not sure whether having no one to blame for the tremendous damage (and the death of a child) made it easier or worse. It’s inconceivable for Canadians to imagine their southern neighbors launching missiles at them. No wonder most of the Western world has a different idea of what an appropriate Israeli response to the attacks from Gaza should be. Experiencing a tornado, which we were assured was “a freak occurrence,” was not something we’d planned when we set up the visit to family, but if I considered all the potential disasters in every destination I probably wouldn’t even be able to board a plane (and flying itself would be terrifying.) All over the world, there are places that actually build a travel industry based on turning life’s bitter lemons into lemonade.
Three years ago, in Taiwan, I was taken on a press tour of the area around Ji Ji township that the participating journalists dubbed the “Earthquake Tourism Trail.” A devastating quake hit the region in 1999, and as part of a campaign to rebuild and revitalize it, the government is promoting tourism there. Our visit, by the way, took place not long after Typhoon Morakat, which killed some 600 Taiwanese and displaced many more.
An unusual form of tourism seems to be developing in the Negev, too – more like something from David Ben-Gurion’s nightmares than his dreams: sympathy trips. Solidarity tours to Sderot and nearby communities are, of course, praiseworthy efforts – offering not only a morale boost to the beleaguered residents but also economic benefits (local businesses can’t function properly when their owners and employees are constantly running for shelter).
The South, indeed, has much to offer from the wonderful scenery; the kibbutz experience; artists’ workshops, galleries and museums; and the Cinematheque in Sderot, which succeeds in holding a decent international film festival in what can only be described as “sur-reel” circumstances.
The more adventurous tourists can go on extreme but exciting cycling rides and they can also enjoy the view overlooking Gaza from the Asaf Siboni Lookout, where a breeze rustles up a pleasant sound from the picturesque wind chimes in a pastoral setting.
I’m not into “victim tours.” There are enough good reasons to visit Israel beyond solidarity (however admirable): holy sites, exotic markets, amazing museums; excellent kosher restaurants; brilliant beaches; a vibrant nightlife; and outstanding dance and cultural events, to mention a few. And permit a former Brit to note that the weather’s not bad, most of the year, either.
When you’ve gone down the list of obvious places for your tastes, sensitivities and budgets, think off the beaten track. My favorite spots, for local tourists as well as foreign visitors, include the caves at Beit Guvrin and the Stalactite Cave at the Avshalom Nature Reserve. And sitting in a camouflaged safari truck while thousands of cranes gracefully land in the surrounding fields might not be an only-in-Israel experience, but I’ve never seen anything like it and it’s a pity to leave the country without going to the Hula Valley nature reserve.
A few months ago, birdwatching of a different type was all the rage on the (un)social media. A photo of an off-duty woman soldier at a Tel Aviv beach with a gun slung across her back and resting on her bikini-clad bum, went viral.
True, this is the only country in the Middle East where a girl (let alone a Jewish one) could go out underdressed with or without a weapon (just as Tel Aviv probably has the liveliest gay scene anywhere along the Mediterranean, and definitely in the Mideast), but personally, as a former gun-toting soldier, I found it rather demeaning. There’s a limit, after all, to what I am prepared to do for my country, and saying “whatever turns you on” to slobbering men (whatever their tourist potential) crosses my red line.
Despite the largely hostile local response to the tourism campaign, somebody must be listening. The Tourism Ministry this week published figures that in the first 10 months of the year a record number of visitors, three million, made it to our shores (on cruise ships), airports and border crossings with Jordan.
If only we could persuade Hamas that Gaza, too, would benefit from developing a trade in tourism rather than terror, life would be better for all of us.
Unlike Israelis who do everything at the last minute (spontaneity is simultaneously one of our best and most annoying traits), most normal people in normal countries make plans ahead of time. So if you’re planning your summer vacation now, think Israel – for all the right reasons.
Readers abroad should consider themselves personally invited; readers in Israel already know what others are missing. Try it, feel it (and buy the clichéd T-shirt.) You can even pick up that cute soldier from the beach, but don’t take her home with you. She belongs here and the country still needs her.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem