An interesting email message was sent the other day to a senior Israeli journalist by the press office of the Greek embassy in Tel Aviv. Under the headline “Greece will always remain beautiful” waited a PowerPoint presentation of some of the most stunning and tempting beaches of the Aegean islands, together with the classic touristic highlights of the mainland.
Timing was no coincidence. Soaring temperatures and baking-hot afternoons in the eastern Mediterranean mean that the soundest thing to do is to look for a relaxing refuge. But this time around, due to the sinking relationships between Israel and Turkey, the holiday map is being redrawn, with all players trying to cash in.
Until 2008, about one million Israelis visited Turkey each year, of whom hundreds of thousands did so during summer, heading to all-inclusive resorts along the Turkish Riviera. But then came Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s outburst at Davos towards the Israeli president Shimon Peres and his call to bar Israel from the United Nations, causing offended Israelis to look for other options.
“Tourism to Turkey this year has virtually disappeared,” says Galit Zakay, marketing manager for Eshet Tours travel agency, adding that “the last straw was the Turkish reaction to the battle with Israeli soldiers aboard a Gaza-bound ship”, which ended in nine Turkish deaths. Israelis watched their flag burning in Istanbul, and sensed that Erdogan was trying to achieve hero status in the Arab world through attacking their country, and decided to rethink their holidays.
The Turkish daily newspaper Hurriyet estimated last week that the loss for the Turkish tourism industry would be $400m, so the competitors were quick to offer alternatives.
“As with any other product on the shelf, when one leaves the market, others try to fill its place,” says Louisa Varaclas, director of the Cyprus Tourism Organisation in Tel Aviv. Sensing the opportunity, she brought more than 50 hoteliers and businessmen to Israel at the end of June, and says the reaction was “enthusiastic”.
And that’s not all. New charter flights began recently to Corfu and to Paphos, and tourist retailers are now providing attractive deals to Crete, Rhodes, Bulgaria and Palma de Mallorca.
When it comes to size, though, Israel is in apparent deficit, and the Turkish tourism minister was quick to say last week that “Turkey expresses itself in millions and Israel in thousands”. But still, a group of prominent Muslim religious leaders, including the leading Sunni cleric Yusuf al-Qardawi, thought it’s important enough to call upon “families and groups planning to travel to Europe, the US or elsewhere, to choose Turkey as a vacation destination instead”. Here, it seems, vacations are never just about getting a tan.