Tourism and politics should, in an ideal world, go hand-in-hand, but regrettably that requires for the public to be properly informed.
It’s safe to say that one of the most controversial editions of the Eurovision music contest has ended, and thanks to the victory of the Dutch singer Duncan Laurence, we can hope for a less divisive competition in 2020.
This year’s European music festival has been particularly animated by protests and debates, spurred by the decision of holding the contest in Israel. The Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, which works to fight international support to Israel, has focused its campaigns on the event and many other organizations have pressured celebrities to cancel their participation at Eurovision in virtue of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian citizens. Even artists inside the contest have taken political stances, from the Icelandic band Hatari, whose members exposed Palestinian banners after their performance, to the world-famous artist Madonna, who included the Israeli and Palestinian flags during her musical number.
However, the most shocking episode regarding this edition of Eurovision didn’t concern the protests: it was the fact that so many chose to travel to the contest’s questionable location in the first place. Tourism was hardly affected by the country’s instability.
I was stunned by the number of fans that made the journey to the concert – despite the fact that only ten days prior to its start deadly clashes had unfolded between Israel and Palestine, and yet the fans seemed little bothered by this. From the 4th to the 5th of May Palestinian militants launched hundreds of rockets that killed four people in the southern villages of Israel. As a retaliation, Tel Aviv responded with massive air strikes that resulted in 19 victims in the Gaza strip as well as significant damage to buildings and infrastructure.
I learned of these attacks on Israel in the most dramatic way: on May 4, around midday, I received some text messages from Claire, a dear friend of mine. She texted: ‘We are being evacuated. We were close to the Gaza strip and we saw Palestinians rockets in the sky. The Israeli army has blown them up. I was so scared, it was horrible!’.
I was startled. I knew Claire was in Tel Aviv attending a short-course sponsored by her university. When she told me about it, a few weeks earlier, I thought it could be a bit risky, but I never imagined anything like this. Fortunately, she and her friends returned to their hotel safely, but in the next days, as the attacks grew in intensity, I kept being extremely worried for her.
After this rather sobering experience, I’ve been confused at how carelessly fans flooded the streets of Tel Aviv to watch their favourite singers, just 10 days after these frightening events. I wondered: did they know about the attacks? About the state of permanent conflict which Israel is in? Did they reflected upon these issues and decided to go anyway, as an act of dedication and bravery, or was it just a sign of recklessness and ignorance?
One possible explanation is that, as confirmed by many tourists’ descriptions, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv don’t feel like dangerous places. They are peaceful, modern, and spiritual cities, the perfect combination for a nice holiday. Claire and her friends probably found themselves in such a dangerous zone because of a mistake on the part of their guide, and she confirmed to me that during the rest of her stay in Tel Aviv she felt absolutely safe. However, incidents in major cities of Israel are not unheard of: in March 2016 an American tourist was killed in a stabbing attack in Jaffa, and on July 2017 violent clashes erupted in Jerusalem. So it would be false to suggest that only areas near the Gaza strip are dangerous.
The presence of tourists in Israel also cannot be properly explained by describing the visitors as adrenaline seekers. True, over the years dark tourism has become increasingly popular, with visitors purposely going to conflict zones to see with their own eyes what war looks like. Some of them even venture into war-torn Syria. But this is not the case for the millions of people that visit Israel every year: they don’t seek dangers or adventures, they just want to visit historical cities and have a spiritual experience, while being in a different culture.
No. The most probable reason behind the abundance of tourism lies in Israel’s incessant promotion of its ‘attractions’. Tourism is a major source of income for the country, and in 2018 it produced 7 billion dollars of revenue. It also increases the state’s legitimacy against its opponents, and it helps strengthen the links between Israeli citizens and Jewish communities all over the world. I did a simple google search typing, ‘is Israel safe for tourists’ and the first 10 results all declared that the country was safer than many European nations, urging me to put my worries aside and visit. The only exception was the UK Government site, which in its ‘foreign travel advice’ sections stated: ‘the security situation in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories can be fast-moving, tense and unpredictable. You should be vigilant at all times and keep up to date with local media and travel reports’.
Not exactly a reassuring description. However, with so many other sources affirming Israel’s absolute security while describing its beauty and marvels, I started to understand why so many people went to Eurovision despite the earlier attacks.
There will always be tourists that decide to visit Israel in order to send some kind of political statement, or as a way of showing their protest against war and conflict. But in the majority of cases, most people (sadly) believe that the country is generally peaceful for most of the time.