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Israelis Wary After Kenya Attacks, but They Still Have That Travel Bug

November 4, 2002
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Last Sunday afternoon, Guy Behat swung his heavy knapsack onto his back, kissed his mother and father goodbye, and prepared to board a plane to Bombay.

Behat, 22, had been planning his post-army trip to India, Thailand and Australia for the last two years. Nothing, not a terrorist attack in Kenya nor his mother’s tears and his father’s concerns, was going to stop him.

Not even the fact that his sister, Vered, was wounded during a terrorist attack on Jerusalem’s Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall last year.

If anything, his sister’s experience made Behat less susceptible to his parents’ protests.

“The chances are much higher that something would happen to me here in Israel, and not in Bombay or Bangkok,” Behat said. “Yeah, I know these places seem kind of risky. But can you honestly tell me that they’re riskier than Jerusalem?”

Dozens of young Israelis with worn jeans, rubber-soled sandals and hefty knapsacks were lingering over their airport goodbyes to mothers and fathers, boyfriends and girlfriends, brothers and sisters.

They promised to call and to be careful. But despite the travel advisories for some of their destinations, they all left for what has become a traditional, post-army service world tour that can last anywhere from two months to two years.

“I tried to explain to him my suspicions and fears, but it didn’t help,” said Behat’s father, Nissim. “He just stood his ground.”

Last year, 91,543 Israeli tourists traveled to Thailand, and 100,000 are expected to reach its exotic shores this year.

El Al flies to Bangkok from Tel Aviv five times a week. So far, neither El Al nor Arkia Airlines, another Israeli airline that specializes in charter flights abroad, have had any cancellations for Bangkok or Bombay.

The younger Israelis who travel to those destinations are less influenced by politics and less sensitive to dangers, said Israel Oleinik, director of Shiluv, a marketing consultancy.

“They will still head out to Thailand and South America and India for their great adventure,” Oleinik said. “It’s the middle range, the Israelis in their 30s and 40s, who will think twice about where to travel.”

At the end of last week, after three Israelis were killed in a suicide bombing at a beachside hotel near Mombasa, Kenya, a Thai army general warned of Muslim extremists in Thailand.

As the Thai army attempted to assuage fears, saying Thailand wouldn’t become a second Bali — a reference to the recent bombing of a Bali nightclub that killed more than 180 people — Israel’s Foreign Ministry issued a general warning about terrorists’ intentions to attacks Israelis abroad.

“Israel can’t give a security guard to each tourist,” a Foreign Ministry official said. “But it does obligate Israeli tourists to be more aware.”

While the number of Israelis vacationing abroad is down 15 percent, around 3.5 million Israelis went abroad in 2002, according to the Israel Tourist and Travel Agents Association.

At least half traveled to more traditional destinations, such as cities in western Europe and the United States. Some 70 percent traveled by regular airlines, while the rest chose charter flights.

Individual Israelis may decide against traveling to certain destinations, said Nahum Kara, managing director of Natour, a wholesale travel agent that specializes in arranging and marketing organized tours. They may opt for arranging their own trip, rather than traveling in a group with other Israelis.

At the same time, Israelis will keep on traveling abroad, even to less secure destinations, several tourism experts said.

“When the U.S. State Department puts out a warning, Americans pay attention,” Kara said. “When Israel’s Foreign Ministry puts out an advisory, Israelis weigh it, but they’re more reasonable.”

In other words, they know it may not be safer to spend a couple of days in the seaside city of Netanya, site of several gruesome terrorist attacks, than it would be to lay on the beach in Phuket, Thailand or Antalya, Turkey.

“Israelis go on vacation to relax, to take a break from the news and the reality of life here,” said Yossi Patael, director of the travel agents association. “The kind of thing that happened in Mombasa will affect them, but it won’t change their minds about traveling.”

Israelis have always been adventurous and frequent travelers, as the Israel’s small size and aggressive lifestyle lead many to seek to escape to less crowded shores.

In the last decade, as per capita income rose to more than $17,000, many travel agencies and charter companies organized weekend and mid-week jaunts to the Czech Republic, Turkey and Greece, charging $200 per person for flights and stays at four-star hotels.

These days they may choose London over Vietnam, or Barcelona rather than Bombay.

In places like Barcelona and Paris, Israeli travel agencies can spread a planeload of Israelis among 10 hotels, rather than in one, easily targeted location, said Boaz Waxman, managing director of Ophir Tours, one of Israel’s largest tourism companies.

“These are the kind of things we think about,” Waxman said. “We spread our tourists around and try not to put more than 20 Israelis in one hotel. We have to have stricter guidelines.”

At Issta, a wholesale travel agent targeting the student and post-army crowd, Ronen Carasso, a company vice president, predicted that Israeli travel to Mombasa would fall after the Nov. 28 attacks.

But no matter what, Israelis will travel. Simply put, a desire to escape the realities of home outweighs the risks of travel abroad.

“Why wouldn’t I travel?” said Gaby Arbib, an economic analyst who recently traveled to Amsterdam with his wife and two children. “We’re used to anything from living here — and besides, what’s the alternative?

“If I stay here and don’t go abroad for vacations because of security fears, there’s no guarantee that I can’t get hurt here,” Arbib pointed out. “If anything, my chances of getting caught in a terrorist attack are less if I’m out of Israel.”

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