Israel’s tourism industry went into free fall as a result of its summer 2014 assault on Gaza, during which its army killed 2,200 Palestinians, including 551 children, and left much of the territory devastated.
The number of tourists was lower compared to the prior year’s figure in every month from July 2014. That was until July this year when the number of visitors finally clawed its way back almost to 2013 levels.
But the escalating violence in October and November, originally provoked by Israel’s unchecked assaults and incursions in occupied Jerusalem’s al-Aqsa mosque compound, has set Israel back again.
Statistics released by the tourism ministry this month show that the number of visitors to Israel in November was down 5 percent compared with same month last year, and was 18 percent lower than in November 2013.
But the drop was much sharper in tourism from Europe: overall there were 10 percent fewer visitors from Europe in November than in the same month last year, and 30 percent fewer than in November 2013.
Israel’s Ynet news website attributes this to the “current wave of terror.”
But a deeper look at the official statistics reveals that Israel is actually experiencing a dramatic and sustained decline in tourism from European countries, its most important markets, that cannot be attributed just to recent events.
In the 11 months from January to November 2013, 2.1 million European tourists visited Israel – accounting for about three quarters of all foreign visitors.
During the same period in 2014 – which included the attack on Gaza – 1.9 million Europeans came, or 9 percent fewer.
Yet far from recovering this year, the number of European visitors to Israel in the first 11 months of 2015 has dropped by another 8 percent.
In this period, visits from Italy have plummeted by almost 50 percent since 2013, including a 26 percent decline since 2014.
Compared with 2013, there have been declines of 32 percent from Finland, 21 percent from Norway, 14 percent from the Netherlands, 25 percent from Poland and 23 percent from both Germany and Austria.
France, Israel’s biggest European tourism market, has held more steady. About 277,000 French visitors showed up from January to November 2015, four percent fewer than in the same period in 2013.
Tourism from the UK, the second largest European market, is still down 10 percent from 2013, but rebounded 10 percent from last year.
Visits to Israel in the first 11 months of the year from the former Soviet Union, the bulk of them from Russia, are down by almost a quarter compared with 2013 and 17 percent compared with last year – a drop Ynet attributes to “the difficult economic situation” in those countries.
There were 16 percent fewer tourists from Australia and New Zealand in the same period compared with 2013.
The news from North America is slightly better for Israel. Visits from the US have actually grown by 3 percent since 2013, although 5 percent fewer Canadians have headed for Israel.
Israel is not likely to welcome a new travel warning to Americans from the US State Department, which cites “heightened tensions and security risks.”
The notice also warns US citizens of “Arab or Muslim origin” of official racism. Some, it acknowledges, “have experienced significant difficulties and unequal and hostile treatment at Israel’s borders and checkpoints.”
The Israeli tourism ministry acknowledges in its latest statement the “significant decrease in tourism” that began during the July 2014 attack on Gaza.
What the hard numbers show is that Israel’s intense efforts to market itself as a carefree destination for sun seekers cannot overcome the stench of the war crimes it has committed in Gaza and the consequences of its violent occupation, settler-colonialism and apartheid in the West Bank.
They also underscore the fundamental contradiction in Israel’s official propaganda – or hasbara – that Israel is a fantastic place to visit and at the same time the most vulnerable and victimized place on earth, beleagured and beset by dangerous internal and external enemies.
It’s a tough case to make that Europeans seeking relaxation, sunshine, good food and culture should head to Israel instead of, say, to Spain, whose tourism arrivals are breaking all records.