Israel’s travel advisors and tour operators unexpectedly needed to halt all trips and get their clients out of the country safely on Saturday, following the surprise attack by Hamas and subsequent reaction that has left close to 2,000 dead and more injured.
The events left travel advisors in Israel scrambling to cancel bookings and get travelers home safely during what is usually the country’s busiest tourist season.
“Most people are still in a profound state of shock and disbelief,” said Jonathan Rose, a travel advisor for Touring Israel, specializing in Israel and Jordan, who has lived in Israel for 30 years.
“We made sure to get our tourists out of the country as soon as possible,” he added. “It looks like this thing is going to take at least a few weeks to sort itself out.”
Rose had three private tour groups in the country at the time of the attacks, he said. Two of the tour groups went straight to the airport in Israel and got the first flights out of the country. The other group crossed the border into Jordan and caught a flight from there.
Once clients with current trips were taken care of, then came the cancelations, Rose said. October is typically the busiest month of the year, but most tours have now been canceled.
“A lot of businesses are closed, and a lot of people are dealing with the fact that their husbands and sons are being called up for duty to fight in a war,” Rose said, noting that his own son had been serving his three-year compulsory service and was immediately called back to his base when the attacks hit. “A lot of people are unresponsive because they are dealing with more personal issues than their job right now.”
Rose said he has dealt with travel changes due to rocket strikes in the country before, but never due to this degree of terrorism. He said a tour guide who contracts with Touring Israel jumped out of a moving vehicle with his baby daughter in his arms to escape a Hamas militant taking his family hostage. The tour guide’s wife remains missing.
“Things are pretty insane,” Rose said, adding that clients with travel plans in Israel who wish to cancel will need to exercise patience during the tumultuous time.
“Cancelation policies are obviously going to go out the window, and I assume a hotel won't penalize someone for not showing up for a reservation when a war is going on,” Rose said. “So, when customers ask that question, we just ask for patience.”
Tova Wald, a lifelong Israeli and founder of Tova Wald Boutique Travel & Events, which specializes in travel to Israel, also had several tour clients in the country when the attacks began. Most of them have fled the country, but a Toronto couple remained at their hotel as of Wednesday trying to find a way home. Wald handles only domestic land travel and said the couple is working with their travel agent in North America to find a flight home.
“The northern border between Israel and Jordan was loaded with people crossing,” Wald said. “So it was very uncomfortable for the tourists who were here and found themselves in this unexpected situation. It affected everybody.
“Within the next couple of days, we will have no tourists here until the situation calms down,” she added. “The guides, restaurants, transportation, sites, the national parks – they're all closed. It’s a loss of the entire industry.”
Wald is encouraging clients with trips booked that are still more than two weeks away to wait on canceling their trip because “two to three weeks is a long time in the Middle East,” meaning that there is a possibility that the conflict quickly takes a turn for the better, making travel perfectly safe by next month.
Still, Wald said, 80% of her clients have canceled trips through the rest of the year, and all have received full refunds.
“The recovery will be challenging; however, as soon as this is over, Israel will open its doors and we will need people to come here,” Wald said. “Because after some weeks of not having people here, the entire industry will need the business. So, anyone who has plans for December, my recommendation is to wait a few more weeks and then make the decision.”
Both Rose’s and Wald’s residences and business offices are located at least a half-hour north of Israel’s major cities, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, where much of the attacks occurred, as well as in southern Israel near the Gaza strip. Rose said that those living in the cities have been running to bomb shelters for safety.
As a result of the chaos, United Airlines has just suspended all flights to Israel through December. Delta is not flying into Israel at least through Oct. 31, and Air Canada said it will resume flights “as soon as the situation stabilizes.”