Overseas Travel Rebounding for Israelis

By Elli Wohlgelernter

Published August 15, 2003, issue of August 15, 2003.
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JERUSALEM — Propelled by the optimism of the Israeli-Palestinian cease-fire and a modest economic upturn, Israelis are traveling abroad this summer in numbers not seen since before the intifada, government and industry spokesmen say.

The number of Israelis who left Israel during the first seven months of this year was up 8.5% over the same period in 2002, according to statistics released in early August. Most of that travel came during the past three months following the end of the Iraq war.

Overseas travel, a staple of Israel’s leisure culture, rose by a steady 14% per year during the 1990s, reaching a peak of about 3.6 million departures in 2000. Travel stagnated in 2001, however, and then dropped 8% in 2002. The decline in travel is due to worsening security since October 2000, the declining value of the shekel and the general economic slump, the statistics bureau said.

While travel has rebounded this year, Israelis’ destinations are more limited than in the past, thanks partly to financial constraints and partly to Israel’s battered reputation around the world.

The most serious blow is a new limitation on Israeli travel to the United States, traditionally one of the most popular destinations for Israeli travelers. Despite official protests, the Bush administration has declined to exempt Israel from strict new visa rules that require would-be visitors to undergo a personal interview in English at an American consulate, adding weeks to a process that previously was all but automatic.

State Department officials were grilled at a congressional hearing last month on Israel’s failure to be admitted to the Visa Waiver Program, which exempts 27 countries, mostly in Europe, from the new strictures.

The exclusion of Israelis, said Rep. Henry Waxman of California, the ranking Democrat on the committee, “raises the question in my mind whether it’s reasonable for us to have this discrimination against Israel, which has been as close an ally as countries in Western Europe.”

However, a State Department official told the committee that Israel’s exclusion resulted not from politics but from the growing perception of Israelis as rule-breakers. “The majority of Israeli applicants… have not been able to overcome the statutory presumption that they are intending immigration… coming here perhaps to work or stay,” said the deputy assistant secretary of state for visa services, Janice Jacobs.

Israeli officials have raised the issue with American government officials. Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom recently told Secretary of Homeland Security Tom Ridge that delays for visas were damaging business relations. Ridge promised to shorten the waiting period.

Israelis, undaunted, have moved on and picked other destinations. This July, 890,734 people had left the country, compared with 820,881 in July 2002. On one day last week, 41,000 people left on 230 flights.

“This year’s popular destination is Croatia and Slovenia, because it’s relatively cheap to go there,” said Hillary Weiss, a travel agent with Ziontours, a popular agency in downtown Jerusalem. “Spain is also big. There are a lot of family package deals — either flight with hotel, or flight with car rental.”

The other popular attractions for families, Weiss said, are the usual ones: the Greek Isles, Turkey, the capitals of Europe and holiday villages in the Netherlands, England, Italy and France.

Natan Uriely, chairman of the Department of Hotel and Tourism Management at Ben-Gurion University, has a different explanation for why Israelis travel in much higher proportion than most countries.

“It’s part of Jewish nature — the ‘Wandering Jew,’” he said, laughing. “So even when Jews get settled in their own country, a little of that ‘Wandering Jew’ leads them to travel a lot.”

For Israeli youth, it is considered a rite of passage to travel abroad in the year following army service, a way to unwind from the stress of serving two to three years in the army.

At the same time, their craving to unwind has fueled the perception of Israelis in many countries as unruly, aggressive and at times obnoxious. Repeated news reports in recent years tell of young Israeli tourists getting into fire extinguisher fights in hotel corridors, throwing watermelon rinds over balconies, burning beds, stealing faucets off the sinks in their hotel rooms, and spray-painting their names on mountain ranges in the Rockies, in Thailand and even on a bunkhouse wall at Auschwitz.

At a hotel on a Thai island, a sign at the entrance reads: “Israeli nationality is not welcome to stay in this hotel, because they are problem makers. We cannot accept their behavior.”

Weiss said she has not heard of hotels discriminating like that anymore. “Israelis have learned how to travel,” she said. “There are always going to be individuals like that, in groups of German and French tourists as well. There were certain hotels in Turkey [that discriminated], but I haven’t heard anything like that recently.”

Among the destinations for the Israeli army veterans looking to unwind and seeking new thrills are India, Thailand, China, Vietnam, Australia and South America, as well as Nepal and Peru, where backpackers take to mountain climbing that sometimes ends in disaster.

Last month, two Israelis were killed in an ice avalanche in the Peruvian Andes, along with four Germans, one Peruvian, one Irishman and an Argentinean who were part of a 16-person expedition. It is not the first time such accidents have occurred, but it seems such tragedies do not deter the daredevils.

“It’s very typical, and widespread among the middle class in Israel,” Uriely said. “For some it’s a leisure way to show their army skills, but for most it’s a way to get away from everything, to do something for yourself, explore yourself without family and the army around you. While many do the extreme, others who take this [post-army] trip sit on beaches of Thailand and smoke dope all day. So you cannot say that this is the typical backpacker.”

It is often said that Israelis travel so much out of the need to regain their sanity, to take a break from the news and the reality, to relax and be free of the daily stress, even in the midst of an economic recession.

“That’s part of the Israeli routine way of life, the tendency of Israelis to travel a lot and to take vacations,” Uriely said. “They keep on doing it even when the economic situation is bad. Israelis will still go abroad, but to cheaper and closer destinations: Greece and Turkey instead of Europe, and now in Egypt since the [cease-fire]. And some Israelis stay at home and do internal tourism rather than go abroad.”

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