Holy Land tours - Is it Safe?
Many visitors preparing for a Holy Land tour often ask the question, is it safe?
Tourism to Israel and the Palestinian Territories (excluding Gaza) has been setting records over the last several years – reaching an all time high of 3.55 million tourists in 2013. As far as year to date 2014, the Holy Land has experienced double digit increases in tourism. (though we anticipate a dramatic decrease as a result of the recent July disturbances that we are experiencing as of this writing). While these are alarming we know that similar military actions have occurred sporadically over the last five decades, and usually end quickly, and tourism, which almost always experiences a decline during the period of conflict, increases once again at the conclusion of these conflicts. Moreover, we also know from experience that the tourists who are on the ground, (and at the present time there are approximately 100,000 tourists here) do continue with their tours, albeit with certain itinerary changes depending on the situation. That’s always been the case with Holy Land travel. With any given tour in Israel or in the Palestinian Territories, groups know that itineraries could be revised or rerouted in order to assure a safe and memorable tour experience.
For the last few years tourism to both Israel and the Palestinian Territories has increased and a substantial number of new hotels have opened in order to meet new demand..Numerous cities including Jerusalem, Jaffa, Haifa, Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, Ramallah, Nablus, even Jenin are attracting new hotel development. And why? Because its been quite safe for tourists. There have been no recent reports of any serious incidents involving foreigners.
As experienced tour operators we are quite aware that the media coverage about the Middle East often portrays Israel and the Palestinian Territories in the West Bank as dangerous to visit. The U.S. State Department’s travel advisories and warnings always attract much attention and these warnings often serve to discourage people from traveling to Israel and/or to the Palestinian Authority areas. Those who’ve never traveled might actually think the region is under constant battle, and that it is dangerous for tourists. But actually, its one of the safest places for tourists to travel. Any traveler must be cautious and keep an awareness of his surroundings. Its important to remember that the news is consumed with attracting viewers and focusing on horrible tragedies and dangerous events around the world brings in ratings which brings in advertisers. Bombings and terrorist activities have occurred and continue to occur but the reality is, the country is quite safe for tourists. Both Israel and the Palestinian Territories (within the West Bank) are quite dependent on tourism and both the Israeli and Palestinian Tourism ministries would not encourage tourists to visit the region if they felt there would be any danger.
Some helpful tips regarding safe Holy Land travel:
While many governments issue travel warnings to the region in general these warnings are intended to advise tourists to keep abreast of their surroundings but these warnings rarely are intended to discourage travel to the region. Travelers always need to be mindful of their surroundings and the regions they are traveling to as rare attacks of terror can occur and the ongoing conflict with Hamas in the Gaza Strip can result in missile fire (as currently is the case as of the writing of this piece on July 9, 2014. The U.S. State Department occasionally issues travel advisories, but threats are usually limited to certain areas. Currently the US government warns its citizens to be vigilant while traveling in Jerusalem, the West Bank and in the southern part of Israel. The most recent travel update can be read at this link. Most recently Israel’s Ministry of Tourism released information to tour operators that travel within a 40 kilometer radius of Gaza is restricted to essential vehicles (as of July 17, 2014).
Security in Israel
Israel is one of the safest countries in the world. While security is quite tight – the tourist generally does not ‘feel’ security forces except for at the airport arrival and departure as well as at border crossings. It is quite typical for guards to be stationed at the entrance of restaurants, shopping malls, entertainment venues and other large public spaces and you will be asked to open your bag. It is quite common to pass through metal detectors at every mall, government building or train station – similar to the experience of entering a court house in the United States.
Crossing to the Palestinian Territories including Bethlehem
It is quite easy to travel to most parts of the Palestinian Territories in the West Bank. You do need to take your passport with you as you will need to present it when you re-enter Israeli-controlled territory. Access is direct and no prior authorization is required enabling hundreds of tourists to travel daily. While Jerusalem and many parts of Israel are relatively simple to navigate s an independent traveler – within the Palestinian Territories we highly recommend that people travel with either a private tour guide or as part of an organized group. While roads in Israel are clearly marked (and using WAZE is quite common) its not nearly as easy to navigate within the Palestinian Territories. Other very helpful travel apps for Holy Land travel can be found here.
If you are planning to rent a car be advised that most rental cars in Israel do not allow you to travel into the Palestinian territories. Its important that you rent a car from an agency, Such as Middle East Car Rental, which possesses insurance on their fleet both in Israel and the Palestinian Territories.
Travelers can rest assured that not only has Israel proven itself a safe place in the last decade, but safety in Palestinian areas has also increased greatly in the last few years. As reported in Travelujah’s article “West Bank Tourism Surge” , Palestinian cities are patrolled by a highly trained police force and more tourists are venturing over the border as well. In fact, that West Bank region of the Palestinian Territories is experiencing growth within their hotel sector. Of course, visitors should always vigilant of their surroundings and refer to the US State Department Travel Advisory website prior to traveling into the West Bank. Note that current and most updated advisory allows travel to Bethlehem and Jericho as well as throughout Israel (excepting the regions that are within 40 km of proximity to Gaza).
Independent travelers planning to travel alone and not on authorized tourist buses or with a private tour guide in a registered tourist vehicle should become familiar with security procedures, roads and more prior to arrival. On occasion, demonstrations and violent incidents can occur, particularly in areas close to refugee camps or near many of the Jewish settlement communities and it is therefore important to always remain very cautious especially if traveling independently. You should avoid all demonstrations or large gatherings, including student or other protests.
Hospitals and clinics are conveniently located around the country and equipped to take care of foreigners in the event of an emergency. No vaccinations are required to enter the country.
On a more personal note, be assured that Breaking Bread Journeys and our related touring companies Travelujah and Samara Tourist & Travel will not operate any tour unless we feel we can do so safely. All of our tours are designed so as to eliminate visits to sites on certain week days or holidays where crowds (and/or tensions) can be high. Considering our longstanding experience running Holy Land tours, and our location, on the ground in Jerusalem, we are flexible and quite able to reroute any program at any moment should the need arise. We check to ensure that the sites in our programs can be safely accessed prior to departure and should we need to revise our schedule we can be immediately responsive. Your security is of utmost importance to us.