11/29/2012 02:28 pm ET

Israel Tourism Persists Despite Gaza Violence

In the eight day period between the first hostilities and the Nov. 21 signing of a cease-fire agreement between the Israeli government and Hamas, tourists wandered happily through Jerusalem and Tel Aviv even as rockets and bombs exploded nearby. The world worried about all-out war and papers printed pictures of dead children and burning homes even as visitors on the ground took in the sights.

This is Israel’s delicate balancing act. The country has a bustling tourism industry that it must keep churning even in the face of unrest and -– what can be more damaging –- the perception of unrest.

Still, as Haim Gutin, Israel's Tourism Commissioner for North and South America, explained to HuffPost Travel via phone on Wednesday, tourists in Israel may be safer than the locals. Gutin, a 30-year veteran of the ministry, was unconcerned about the touristic ramifications of the recent violence.

HuffPost Travel: Did the recent conflict frighten away tourists?

Haim Gutin: During the operation in Gaza for eight days we saw a drop in numbers for 2013, but there was never an evacuation of tourists and everything preceded as normal. We monitored the situation for states as U.S. tours continued because we had to be sure we could take measures if there was a reason for alarm. I can say the drop from the U.S. was not catastrophic by any means.

It is also worth pointing out that the State Department never issued a warning.

HPT: But surely the violence does dampen travelers desire to be Israel.

HG: Terrorism is a global issue today and can happen anywhere in the world. In Israel, if terrorists hurt the economy, it will hurt Arabs. The owners of many restaurants and small businesses are Arab and these people don’t want to hurt their own resources. It would damage everyone in the Old City and cost jobs. Our tourism industry has never attracted attacks in the past ...

Gaza could be the Riviera of the Middle East if more money was spent on tourism and less on confrontation.

HPT: A lot has been said about the way that Israelis treat Palestinians. Do you worry that tourists will stay away as a form of protest?

HG: I’ve never head of tourists not coming because of how the government treats Arabs ... People are going to Israel to fulfill their dreams and that doesn’t typically involve politics. There are lots of places that people aren’t treated well -- just look at Syria -- and Israel isn’t one of them.

Tourism also encourages people to share. The man who blows himself up can’t know who he is killing because there are so many different types of people here. We all live together and we do care about our Arab citizens.

HPT: Why do you think tourists are so persistently coming to Israel?

HG: People always come for the archeological attractions and there are always new ones. There are also different languages and cultures and foods right next to each other. Jerusalem is open to everybody, to all the people of the world, and that makes people want to come. I believe this will continue.

HPT: Can you describe the tourists you are seeing coming in right now?

HG: About 48 percent of visitors to Israel are repeat visitors. They are old and they are young. We can accommodate everyone and right now everything is normal. All we want is quiet.



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