Israelis boost their own tourism market

Hilary Krieger Sep 6, 2006

KAI RYSSDAL: Buried deep in the draft Israeli budget that was released this week was this figure: 34 days of fighting in Lebanon cost Israel almost $3.5 billion. Already the finance minister is saying social programs might have to be cut to pay for reconsctruction in Northern Israel. That part of the country was the main target of the nearly 4,000 Hezbollah rockets that were fired during the war. It’s also a prime destination for foreign tourists. They’re a key part of the Israeli economy. But Hilary Krieger reports there are homegrown tourists, too.

HILARY KRIEGER: A group of men and women, mostly in their 20s and 30s, mills around dead trees left burnt and splintered by Hezbollah fire. Standing on ashes, they look past the barbwire fence that separates Israel from Lebanon. An armored personnel carrier rumbles past.

These are not the typical sights and sounds of a tour of rural northern Israel. But then, this group hasn’t come to take in bucolic beauty. Most of these Israelis come from the high-tech industry in Tel Aviv. The guide, Amnon Loya, says they’re leaving the center of the country and heading up north to inspect the damage of the recent war up close.

AMNON LOYA: When you are looking at the television you sit in your comfortable chair in Tel Aviv, you think it’s terrible, yes. But you don’t see, actually, the happenings. You have to feel it. When you’re standing in the living room of a family and you see the destruction of the house, you can’t avoid feeling sympathy.

So now he is leading a tour of burnt forests, bombed houses and a military cemetery. These are unexpected attractions in one of Israel’s top tourist destinations.

LOYA: It’s curiosity and supporting the north part of Israel. The aim of it is to spend some money there.

Further down the road, the group’s caravan of cars pulls to the side of the road. They wave to bored UN peacekeepers manning an outpost in Lebanon. An ice cream truck pulls up and many in the group do buy something.

Uri Fahima is glad that he has some customers today, but says it’s only a “drop in the ocean” compared to what has been lost this summer.

URI FAHIMA [interpreter]: It really hurts us. All the tourists have left. It’s a disaster.

Tourism, one of the north’s chief industries, lost $60 million due to the war. Still, because the infrastructure in northern Israel wasn’t damaged like it was in Lebanon, tourism is rebuilding quickly.The government plans to reimburse businesses for 75 percent of their losses so they won’t go under. And Israelis, used to war, are already heading back.

Danny Abrami is part of the tour group, which has stopped for lunch at a local restaurant.

DANNY ABRAMI: The day that the war ended it was obvious that Israelis would go back to the north as they always did. We love the north. Israelis go on living. We are used to that. Sometimes from America it seems a lot scarier. “Whoa, you went to the north border with Lebanon. Wow.” For us, it seems different, because life goes on here.

Normally foreigners make up 10 percent of the north’s visitors, but at the moment they are nowhere to be found. Tourism Ministry Director General Nachum Izkovitz says foreigners are understandably a bit more cautious.

NACHUM IZKOVITZ: People all over the world, if they want come to vacation, they would like to know that everything will be quiet. That’s why it takes more time than the Israelis.

Foreign tourism is down 40 percent overall, according to Izkovitz. So the ministry, in partnership with an American Jewish group, has created a virtual way to support northern Israel.

On “The Galilee Spirit” Web site, those abroad can purchase vouchers for hotels in the north to be redeemed throughout the year. In the short term businesses get money, if not customers. That way, they hope to still be around when the foreign tourists eventually do come.

In northern Israel, this is Hilary Krieger for Marketplace.

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