Israeli travelers wipe Turkey off their summer maps

In wake of naval raid, tourism professionals encourage switch to local vacations; ‘Princess’ cruise ship cancels stop at Ashdod.

Turkey, once a prime tourist destination for Israelis, is a no-go zone following Monday’s deadly skirmish at sea.

Israelis, angry at Turkey for its involvement in the Gaza aid flotilla, are exacting punishment through their wallets. Thousands have asked to cancel planned summer vacations, and effective next week, all direct flights to Turkish holiday destinations have been canceled.

On Monday, the National Security Council issued a travel warning for Turkey, urging prospective travelers to postpone unnecessary travel and those already in Turkey to avoid leaving their hotels for fear of violent anti-Israel protests. However, according to tourism professionals, the cancellations started even before the warning was issued, and look set to last over the entire summer.

“In 2008, 560,000 Israelis vacationed in Turkey. Early estimates were that 400,000 people would travel there this year. Now, after the events and according to the latest estimates, maybe 100,000 will go, mostly people from the Arab Israeli population, who are less influenced by the events,” said Joseph Fischer from IDB Tourism.

For the most part, Israeli travel companies have been forthcoming in agreeing to cancel travel bookings for Israelis who have decided they don’t want to visit Turkey, most of them prepared to offer alternative destinations at similar prices.

Israel Tourism and Travel Agents Association director-general Yossi Fattal said travel agents were doing everything in their power to assist people who stood to lose out on their vacations, and that in many cases, they had been able to find alternative destinations and even waive cancellation fees.

Fischer suggested that now was the time to expose Israelis to new and alternative destinations.

“For many years, Israelis have been happy to close themselves up in the Turkish coastal all-inclusive resorts. Maybe now, when it is no longer an option, they will open up to new places and new vacation experiences,” said Fischer. “Though there aren’t any other places that can offer the same all-you-can-eat and all-you-can-drink packages, there is a whole world of travel destinations just waiting for the Israeli tourist.”

Among the alternatives Fischer proposed were Mediterranean coastal destinations like the Greek islands, Sicily, Sardinia, Malta and the coastal regions of Croatia, as well as the Bulgarian resorts on the Black Sea shores.

“The alternatives may not be as cost-efficient as the mega all-inclusive deals of Turkey, but some of them have features that Turkey doesn’t, like casinos,” said Fischer.

According to Fischer, the timing of the diplomatic crisis with Turkey, coinciding with the economic crisis in Europe, works to Israelis’ advantage.

“More Europeans will stay at home this summer, increasing supply and lowering prices in holiday destinations. If this crisis had taken place last year, there would be few destinations still accepting bookings, but the field is still wide open,” he said.

“Greece in particular is a viable option, because it, more than any other country, is suffering from the economic effects of the crisis. In the same way that Israelis are punishing Turkey, Germans are punishing Greece and canceling planned holidays there,” noted Fischer.

The fallout with Turkey may also end up benefiting the local tourism industry, as it is expected that many Israelis will choose to stay and vacation in places like Eilat, the Dead Sea and Tiberias.

Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov, speaking to The Jerusalem Post from Beijing on Tuesday, urged Israelis who had chosen to cancel their planned summer vacations to Turkey, to vacation in Israel instead.

“It is vital that Israelis heed the National Security Council’s travel warning and stay away from Turkey for as long as the warning is in place,” said Meseznikov. “There is no doubt that Turkey is no longer a popular destination for Israelis, and now is the time to support the local tourism industry and plan a vacation in Israel.”

The boost might prove necessary for the industry to maintain itself this summer, as the first signs of tourist cancellations to Israel are starting to appear on the horizon. On Wednesday, the American cruise ship Pacific Princess, carrying 700 passengers, canceled a planned docking in Ashdod and a day of touring southern Israel, citing security concerns in the aftermath of the Gaza aid flotilla affair. After spending Tuesday touring the North, passengers were informed that they would not be stopping in Ashdod as planned and instead would be continuing their voyage to Egypt.

Ariel Stolar, deputy director-general of the Israel Tour Guides Association, expressed concern that other cancellations would follow.

Eitan Ivan, CEO of the Associated Maritime Agency, the Israeli agent for Princess Tours, said his company worked with several other cruise lines and that so far no one else had canceled any planned visits.

“The company decided that they would skip the southern half of their tour in Israel out of fear of encountering violent protests in Jerusalem and elsewhere. This was an on-the-spot decision brought about by the incidents surrounding the flotilla, and not part of an emerging trend,” said Ivan.

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