Jerusalem — Like many other Israelis who experienced the 1990-‘91 Gulf War and the first and second Palestinian uprisings — all of which devastated tourism to Israel, and especially Jerusalem — I’m always a bit amazed when I see busload upon busload of tourists praying at the Kotel or walking the Via Dolorosa.
With a record 3.45 million visitors, 2010 was the best year ever for Israeli tourism, but it’s taken me, and other Israelis, a while to get used to the fact that outsiders finally consider our country a desirable destination.
In Israel, perhaps more than most other, less volatile places around the world, tourism has always been a barometer of security, or at least perceived security. When terrorists blow up buses, when Scud missiles and Hamas rockets rain down, it’s easy to understand why Israel hasn’t been on every potential tourist’s list of prized vacation spots.
In the early- to mid-2000s, when downtown Jerusalem felt like a war zone due to the second intifada, even we locals were afraid to venture out for a meal or to board a bus. It came as no surprise that numerous establishments, from restaurants and stores to bus companies and hotels were forced to shut down for lack of business. There were mass layoffs of tour guides and drivers, clerks and waiters as the service and retail sectors crumbled.
But once the intifada petered out, Israel felt like paradise to those of us who live here. Amazing weather, great food, the beach, culture and nightlife. When, we wondered, would the rest of the world catch on?
To be sure, there have been some terror attacks in Jerusalem and the West Bank during the past few years, and Hamas has continued to lob some rockets in the south and Hezbollah in the north. But by Israeli standards, 2010 was as normal as you can get.
Normal as in “chutz’ l’aretz” (abroad) normal. Normal as in New York, London or Paris. Far from perfect but with enough good things going for it that no one pays attention.
While much of the credit for the higher rate of tourism to Israel can be traced to the receding recession and the fact that many formerly strapped travelers again have some disposable income, I suspect Israel’s attraction is due to something deeper.
To me, the presence of so many tourists this past year also stems from the recognition that Israelis have created an amazing country that’s worth coming to see. For me, it’s a little disconcerting – even amusing – to see the world’s travel writers suddenly competing for the best superlatives to describe a country being maligned by leftists as an apartheid state for its policies on the West Bank.
Suddenly, The New York Times is running articles on fashionable (!) Jerusalem and every media outlet from National Geographic to Lonely Planet is ranking Tel Aviv as one of the top cities in the world.
Mark Feldman, CEO of the Jerusalem travel agency Ziontours, says the world’s perception of Israel is finally catching up with reality.
“Israelis went back to restaurants a couple of years ago, went to parades and outdoor fairs. The tourists are now experiencing our sense of calm. Once foreigners arrive and see the abundance of people in outdoor locations, Feldman said, “they reinforce the calm that permeates Israeli society.”
That sense of calm and even joie de vivre is everywhere: in the parks, the beaches and outdoor cafés; at concerts and holiday marches. During the summer, the annual Hutsot Hayotzer arts and crafts show attracted hundreds of thousands of locals and foreigners to Jerusalem’s Sultan’s Pool next to the Old City walls. During the intifada years, the show was tiny and held in a more secure location.
This feeling of well-being is also starting to trickle down to the Palestinians, who in 2010 invested greatly in tourism to the West Bank, especially Bethlehem and Jericho, which boasts grand archaeological ruins and a tree mentioned in the New Testament.
“We’re still closed in by Israel’s massive wall, but at least the tourists are back again,” a Bethlehem shopkeeper told me during Christmas week. “Inshalla, it will continue.”
One sign that both tourism and domestic life have improved is the reopening of The Information Center, a private tourist information service that opened in mid-November right inside the Old City’s Jaffa Gate.
Located next door to the Tourism Ministry’s official information booth, the for-profit center sells discounted tickets to events throughout Jerusalem and beyond from a strikingly renovated space with 50 interactive video monitors.
Yoram Twito, the center’s co-owner, said he opened a similar center in 2000, a few months prior to the start of the second intifada.
“My contract was for two years, but tourism was dead in six months and we were forced to close,” Twito, a heavy-set man, recalled recently as a dozen chilled tourists asked questions and purchased tickets on a nasty December day.
A born entrepreneur and optimist, Twito decided that 2010 was the right time to reopen his tourism business.
“Now that things are prospering, that tourists are here in droves, there is a special vibe in the air. Like everyone, we’re praying for a quiet period without conflict, to build our business.”
Palestinians involved in tourism are feeling the same vibe, Twito said.
“When I talk to our Palestinian neighbors, they say they hope this situation will continue. Like us, they want to educate their children and feed their families.”
All I can say is, may the vibe continue.