Tourists come despite the war

Operation Protective Edge has brought an expected dip in tourism, but not everyone is staying away. ISRAEL21c finds out why.

Signs at the Ben-Gurion Airport point visitors to a bomb shelter. Photo by Tzahi Ben Ami/FLASH90.

Signs at the Ben-Gurion Airport point visitors to a bomb shelter. Photo by Tzahi Ben Ami/FLASH90.

“If anything, the war only strengthened my resolve to be here,” Annika Hernroth-Rothstein told ISRAEL21c at a holiday rental near the beach in Tel Aviv.

Hernroth-Rothstein, a political consultant and columnist from Sweden, was not deterred by the rockets over Tel Aviv in early July, when she brought her two young sons to Israel for a week-long trip.

To be sure, the steep dip in tourism to Israel that began with the July 8 outbreak of Operation Protective Edge has members of the industry worried. The Tourism Ministry noted a 13 percent decrease in tourist entries through Ben-Gurion International Airport for the period of July 1-22. An inter-ministerial committee has been set up to meet the financial challenge and compensate businesses hurt by the tourism slump, which is expected to last until the end of December, according to Shmuel Marom, head of the Incoming Tour Operators Association.

Nevertheless, not everyone is staying away. “At first it was frightening to hear the sirens and have to get my kids to the nearby shelter, without freaking them out in the process,” Rothstein said. “But then we got used to it. It was a unifying experience meeting Israelis in the shelter.”

Furthermore, she added, “With the anti-Israel and anti-Semitic sentiment as high as it is in Sweden, Israel is actually relaxing for me. And my boys suddenly felt safe in a funny way.”

As soon as she and her children returned to Sweden, Hernroth-Rothstein made plans to come back by herself later that month. Packed and ready to embark, she found herself among the travelers whose flights got cancelled as a result of a two-day ban by many international airlines imposed after a Hamas rocket landed near Ben-Gurion Airport. Rather than forfeiting her trip, however, Hernroth-Rothstein found an alternate route involving train treks and long waits at airports.

“Honey, I’m hooooome,” she quipped on Facebook upon her arrival – mere hours before a Red Alert sent her into the closest bomb shelter.

Visiting the South

Nor did the war put a dent in the travel plans of New Yorker Vivian Lazar.

“If I cancelled a trip because of the terrorist attacks of Hamas, I’d be giving them the victory they desire,” she told ISRAEL21c.

Lazar is the director of HaZamir: The International Jewish High School Choir, founded by her husband, conductor Matthew Lazar, as part of his Zamir Choral Foundation, which promotes Jewish identity and unity through music.

Lazar typically visits Israel several times a year, mostly for the purpose of establishing and coordinating Israeli branches of the international choir. Her fourth trip in 2014, slated for this month, is to include a wedding, getting together with friends and relatives and taking in some sun along the Mediterranean.

Israelis and tourists enjoy the beaches of Tel Aviv on July 26, 2014, as the country entered its 19th day of Operation Protective Edge. Photo by Zoe Vayer/FLASH90.

Israelis and tourists enjoy the beaches of Tel Aviv on July 26, 2014, as the country entered its 19th day of Operation Protective Edge. Photo by Zoe Vayer/FLASH90.

But now Lazar wants to include a visit to the South, “to see firsthand how people are managing to live with daily rocket attacks. My husband and I don’t live in Israel and are keenly aware that our children are not on the frontlines. The least we can do during difficult times is to walk the streets and show our support for our homeland.”

Helen Pearson Freedman, an activist on behalf of Israel from Arizona, was slated to volunteer on an IDF base next March but immediately made plane and hotel reservations for this summer as a statement of solidarity.

Ironically, she recounted, “On the eve of my trip, I was at a branch of Bank of America, and suddenly a siren started blaring. We all had to run out of the building, not knowing whether there was a bomb scare or something else. The point is that bad things can happen anywhere. And Israel, at least, is bravely fighting terrorists.”

Standing with Israel

Jewish activists are not the only ones braving the bombs to come to Israel right now.

Business travelers and VIPs – despite cancelled public concerts – continue to fly into Israel, with Oscar-nominated actor Jesse Eisenberg one case in point.

Engage: Israel (a program connected with Ebenezer, an international Christian organization that helps Jews immigrate to Israel) brought 73 Christian tourists from 18 countries for a two-week trip to the Holy Land in mid-July.

According to group leader Tom Brooker, who hails from the UK, only three people cancelled their participation due to the war.

“It’s easy to say you stand with Israel when everything is fine,” Brooker told ISRAEL21c. “But when it counts most is when Israel is in distress.”

Furthermore, said Brooker, “It is never as bad here as it is portrayed in the foreign media.”

Indeed, not once during the tour of the country did the group experience a Red Alert or siren. Though prepared for this to happen, they never ended up in a shelter or safe room. If they had, said Brooker, it would not have mattered.

“As a Christian, I will stand with Israel, no matter what.”

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About Ruthie Blum

Ruthie Blum, a former editor at The Jerusalem Post, is a columnist for Israel Hayom and the author of "To Hell in a Handbasket: Carter, Obama, and the 'Arab Spring.'"