Now that the World Health Organization (WHO) has brought to an end the COVID global health emergency that was declared in January 2020, impartial and objective assessments can be made as to the actual impact the virus had on commerce and industry. It will be a while before all the available and relevant data will be mined and correlated, but I think it’s safe to assume that the dire predictions of economic doom and gloom were, thankfully, a bit off. While small businesses that were repeatedly forced to close due to the pandemic were certainly hit hard, most, it seems, are still in operation and are slowly returning to where things were three years ago.
Locally, the COVID storm was, for the most part, successfully weathered. With typical Israeli resiliency, working models and paradigms were modified to reflect the demands that the virus put on both consumers and merchants. And, in addition, once security requirements were adequately designed and set in place, much of the white-collar sector went into Work From Home (WFH) mode, which is continuing – partially or entirely – as the prevalent mode throughout high tech, insurance, financial management, and other digitalized enterprises.
The one significant contributor to the Israeli economy that still remains somewhat unsettled is tourism. Reports throughout the local media indicate that while bookings of Church groups and Evangelical pilgrimages to the Holy Land are returning to pre-pandemic levels, routine vacationers are expressing hesitation about coming here. Which, when looked at through unbiased lens, comes as no surprise.
The ongoing and competing demonstrations and repeated acts of terrorism are understandably dampening the enthusiasm to visit Israel, as vacationers and conventioneers are searching for more traditional forms of adventure and excitement. Both the Ministry of Tourism and the major tour operators and planners agree that while there is most definitely a resurgence in the industry, opinion vary as to how quickly the sector will fully recover from the restrictions that were demanded by the pandemic. There is, though, general concurrence that existing facilities need to be enhanced, the only question is whether the infrastructure should be designed for middle class, budget-conscious tourists or, instead, for those who do not have to ask how much something costs. A compromise of four-star accommodations and dining experiences – you know, wine bottles that you screw the top off rather than uncork, or hotel rooms that place a hard candy instead of a chocolate nugget on your pillow – should, it seems, be the objective.
As for the plague of national instability, well, has Israel truly ever been anything but unstable. It’s been years since we had a government that lasted a full four years, terrorism is certainly not new, the price of cottage cheese was not that long ago the catalyst for major demonstrations, and a former president is a convicted rapist. Rainless summers, relatively safe streets, entertainment and cultural venues that satisfy all tastes and preferences, and, oh yes, a bit of ancient history here are there what invites tourists to our shores. International media will soon tire of the same headlines and predictions of political and social tsunamis in Israel will soon stop.
The main concern of those responsible for the policies and marketing of tourism in this country focus, for the most part, on increasing the number of foreign passports that pass through the customs’ turnstiles. The number of visitors in previous years has become the principal benchmark for comparison and the threshold to determine if the industry is in a state of feast or famine. A change of perspective is called for, I think.
It goes without saying that visitors from abroad are the lifeblood of the industry, but considering the ugly headlines that are being generated throughout the world, it might be prudent to concentrate on how best to keep Israeli passports close to home. Surely Israel – replete with scenic mountains, majestic deserts, and nearly two hundred kilometers of beaches – can compete with the charming villages of north Italy, the covered bridges of rural Pennsylvania, or the ancient remains of Athens. A bit of clever salesmanship and financial incentives just might convince a family that exploring the natural wonders of the Golan is preferable than navigating or swimming in the fjords of Norway.
Why, then, are local tour operators pushing vacation packages in Europe or adventures in South America? Promoting local hotels, attractions and restaurants should top the agenda for the next several months. I’m not unaware of the attitude that Israelis have toward vacationing locally. Israel, they say, is great for a weekend in a zimmer, or to spend a few wintry days in Eilat, but for the local population, a two-week vacation Israel does not provide much excitement, variety or diversity.
I’d like to think that Israel’s Minister of Tourism, Haim Katz, is working diligently on reversing that misconception, but I’m not overly confident. Traditionally, the position of tourism minister was doled out as a reward for loyalty to the ruling party. It was little more than a “picturesque” posting, and relatively little was demanded and even less expected from whoever was appointed to head the ministry. Katz comes from an industrial and labor-centric environment; the qualifications he has to promote Israel’s tourism industry is unclear at best. Nonetheless, I do hope that he is being advised that some intense concentration on local tourism is essential, at least until the political turbulence abates, the vile acts of terrorism come to an end, and the military activity in Gaza is over.
Vacations are now being planned. The Internet is being scoured up and down for ideas, deals, and packages, with little concern that local venues and establishments that depend on tourism are struggling. In the interest of recognizing and honoring our seventy-fifth year of independence, it would be nice if we expressed appreciation for what we have at home rather than seek excitement elsewhere. At least for the time being.