Israeli hotels feel the pinch

A guard sits among empty tables at a restaurant on a Jerusalem street usually packed with summer tourists, July 24. (Brian Hendler)

A guard sits among empty tables at a restaurant on a Jerusalem street usually packed with summer tourists, July 24. (Brian Hendler)

JERUSALEM, July 24 (JTA) — With the fighting along Israel’s northern border showing no sign of letting up, Israel’s most popular summer tourist region has been turned into a battle zone. Tanks line roads normally filled with tour buses loaded with schoolchildren, Christian pilgrims and Orthodox Jews. Instead of the sounds of kids splashing in swimming pools and canyons, there is a constant booming of artillery shelling and tank fire. Instead of birds quietly hovering in the skies over the Hula Nature Reserve, attack helicopters and fighter jets streak across the sky headed north, into Lebanon. And instead of hotels in Haifa, Tiberias and Rosh Pina packed with tourists, hoteliers are shutting down operations and turning off the electricity, with a whisper and prayer for peace — and the return of tourists. “Until this operation is over, we won’t see anyone here, and I can’t say how much time after the war it will take to return to the routine,” said Moshik Givaty, manager of the Rosh Hanikra Tourist Center, on Israel’s Mediterranean coast next to the Lebanese border. The center, which includes grottos, a cable car, restaurant and historical sites, usually draws 35,000 visitors in July and August. This year it was shut down on the morning of July 12 — shortly after Hezbollah precipitated the crisis by killing eight soldiers and kidnapping two in a cross-border raid — by order of the Israel Defense Forces, which has commandeered much of Rosh Hanikra for military operations. “Rosh Hanikra is in the conflict zone, and we must be in secured rooms or bunkers,” Givaty explained. Unless the fighting ends soon, he warned, the summer will be a complete loss. All across northern Israel, the resorts, hotels and bed and breakfasts that normally are full this time of year are closed or virtually empty. “We’ve unplugged the fridges and shut off the electricity,” said Yoela Shany, who owns Siesta vacation cottages in Ramot, in the Golan Heights. “This never happened before.” Dozens of bed and breakfasts in Ramot, a popular vacation village, have been left empty. Three Katyusha rockets have landed in or near town, but so far none has caused casualties or major property damage. Many hotels in Haifa have closed their doors, and those that remain open have been able to do so only because of the influx of journalists in town to cover the war and the Katyushas that now fall in the city daily. “Everything fell apart in the second half of the month,” said Shimon Cohen, general manager of Haifa’s Nof Hotel. “For August, we are almost at a 0 percent occupancy rate.” Tourism in the rest of the country is mostly holding up, but tourism workers all over Israel are worried that their livelihoods may be devastated if the fighting drags on. That, in turn, could wreak havoc on the economy as a whole. “The situation is very fluid,” said Yonatan Pulik, spokesman for the Tourism Ministry. “There are no significant cancellations on incoming tourists from abroad — yet. Of course, there is damage to internal tourism, particularly in the North.” There are no statistics available yet, Pulik said, though 2006 had looked like a banner year for tourism in Israel — until two weeks ago. The economic impact on Israel’s tourism industry already has run into the millions of dollars, but the damage may be limited if the fighting ends quickly. Tourist industry professionals in places like Jerusalem and Eilat say they’re making up for any cancellations with extra business from people leaving northern Israel — both Israelis and tourists rearranging their itineraries to avoid the conflict zone. Jamie Salter, a licensed tour guide in Jerusalem, said the conflict’s impact on tourism goes both ways: Some tour guides are making up for canceled gigs by picking up the appointments of fellow Israeli tour guides who have been called away to military reserve duty. “We’re getting a lot of people running away from the North,” said Ibrahim Dawud, owner of the Mount of Olives Hotel in eastern Jerusalem. “A lot of Israeli Arabs are coming to Jerusalem to escape the fighting, and a lot of tourists that were in the North are coming south, so we’re filling up.” But, Dawud cautioned, “I think the long-term prospects for us are bad. People hear the news and they’re scared to come, and they’ll cancel. The second intifada devastated us. We were empty for three years.” Hoteliers say they haven’t yet suffered the wave of cancellations they saw during the worst years of the intifada, but they warn things will quickly get bad if the fighting doesn’t end soon. “The situation is stable,” said Rodney Sanders, general manager of Jerusalem’s Inbal Hotel. ̊We have cancellations for the month of July, but there is also pickup from the Jewish organizations that have come to support Israel in this situation.” Delegates from this week’s Israel solidarity mission of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations are staying at the Inbal. The hotel also is hosting some 50 Israeli families from the city of Kiryat Shmona, in northern Israel, thanks to a donation by Israeli real estate mogul and philanthropist Yitzhak Tshuva. In the southern resort town of Eilat, the fighting hundreds of kilometers away might as well be in a different country — except for the northerners who have gone to Eilat to escape the war. “We are almost entirely full,” said Eytan Loewenstein, spokesman for Isrotel Hotels, which has more than half a dozen hotels in Eilat. “This is normal for July-August, when it is high season for hotels in Eilat. Even if there were a few empty rooms, they’ve been taken up by people arriving from central and northern Israel.” By comparison, he noted, the Isrotel-owned Carmel Forest Spa Resort, near Haifa, is at 25 percent occupancy at a time of year when it normally is full. “This is supposed to be the high season, and everything’s empty,” lamented Sara Shavit, who along with her husband owns the Shavit Guest House in Moshav Arbel, just north of Tiberias. “We are in a serious problem. We have no other source of income.” A Katyusha rocket landed just across the road from the couple’s property last week, setting fire to a desiccated field and threatening to burn down the Shavits’ home and vacation cottages. Thankfully, Shavit said, the fire was extinguished just in time. While she said she hopes the fighting ends soon, Shavit said it’s more important to her that it ends well, even if it takes longer. “We very much hope it will end soon, and as well as possible, so that we can both make a living, but also so we have long-term quiet, and not short-term quiet.”

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