By Alina Dain Sharon
Jointmedia News Service
WASHINGTON (JNS) — Since a terrorist bus bombing killed five Israeli tourists and injured more than 30 in the Bulgarian city of Burgas, travel agencies (unsurprisingly) reported a decline in Israeli reservations for Bulgarian vacations. Many who were due to depart for Burgas immediately after the attack were offered alternative destination packages.
But the attack resonated far beyond Bulgaria, serving as a reminder of the dangers that Jews and Israelis can face when traveling, due to Islamist terrorism and religious persecution.
European Union (EU) President Erato Kozakou-Marcoullis said Tuesday that the EU would not grant Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman’s request to declare Iran-funded Hezbollah as a terrorist organization, but senior Israeli security officials warn that Hezbollah still blames Israel for the 2008 killing of senior official Imad Fayez Mughniyah, and as retribution could be planning the kidnapping or murder of Israelis abroad. Iran also continues to blame Israel for the deaths of several nuclear scientists, and the Israeli government has frequently blamed the Islamic Republic for attacks against Israelis abroad.
Israeli security officials also warn that jihadist terror organizations may be planning attacks against Israelis and Jews in African nations south of the Western Sahara such as Mali, Mauritania, or Côte d’Ivoire.
A U.S. State Department official told JNS that the U.S. government publishes “Country Specific Information (CSI) on our website for every country in the world…If our overseas posts notice a trend of discrimination or crimes against Jewish individuals, we note it in the CSI. It is important to read this information, as well as any relevant travel alerts or travel warnings, before embarking on a trip.”
Specific threats to Israeli and Jewish travelers are not limited to Africa and the Middle East. Israeli embassies were attacked in Georgia and India earlier this year, and bombs in Bangkok, Thailand, may have been targeting Israelis.
Despite this, tourism workers don’t believe that Israeli and Jewish travel will ultimately be affected by such incidents. Israel Tourist & Travel Agents Association director Yossi Fattal recently told Globes that young Israelis wouldn’t ultimately be deterred from vacationing in Bulgaria.
“Israelis will return to Burgas, especially the young,” he said. “The younger the audience, the less sensitive it is to warnings, and Burgas is a destination for the young: the beach parties, the booze, cheap accommodations, and everything that the young look for.”
While the number of Jewish tourists visiting Bulgaria and other recently targeted regions may initially decrease, travel agents believe normal patterns will ultimately be restored. “We have not seen any cancellations or changes after the (Bulgaria) bombing,” Sophia Kulich, from the Jewish Travel Agency in Palm Harbor, Fla., told JNS.org. “Most of the Americans do not go to Burgas. Israelis are rarely discouraged by bombing to travel.”
Prior to the recent attack in Bulgaria, however, that country’s Jewish community had already increased its security arrangements after being warned that a bomb was found on a charter bus for Israelis traveling from the Turkish border to a Bulgarian ski resort.
Turkey itself has been a popular destination for Israeli tourists, along with Thailand, India and Bulgaria. But according to data from the State Department’s July-December 2010 International Religious Freedom Report, Turkish Jews were already worried about anti-Semitism in the country and believed it is directly related to events in the Middle East.
Data from both the Jewish European Council and the Tel Aviv University Stephen Roth Institute for the Study of Contemporary anti-Semitism and Racism reveals that it is actually democratic Western countries, primarily France and England, that have registered the highest numbers of anti-Semitic incidents between 2001 and 2010. The U.S. State Department’s Religious Freedom Report also said that the United Kingdom saw a spike in anti-Semitic incidents after the Gaza flotilla incident, including property damage, threats and anti-Semitic graffiti.
In France, home to about 500,000 Jews and a popular tourist destination, 148 anti-Semitic incidents, 43 of which were violent, were reported between March 19 and April 30 of this year, more than twice as many as the 68 recorded incidents for the same period in 2011, according to data from the Service for the Protection of the Jewish Community (SPCJ). In 2009, after the Israeli military’s operation in the Gaza Strip, the number of anti-Semitic incidents in France doubled. Muslims perpetrated all 400 physical attacks against Jews recorded by the National Bureau of Vigilance against Anti-Semitism (BNVCA) in France in 2011, bucking the common perception that much of Europe’s anti-Semitism stems from other extremists such as neo-Nazis. Most recently, Islamist terrorist Mohamed Merah killed a rabbi and three children outside a Jewish school in Toulouse this March.
Kulich said that security for her tours is always tight. Since her company holds Jewish heritage tours, synagogues in many countries like Turkey, France or Russia require a security clearance in advance, and the company provides them the passport information of all tourists. The company also specializes in private tours with drivers, transportation and guides that adhere to all security measures in each country. “Jewish travel is alive and well and tourists are not afraid to travel,” Kulich said. Tourism numbers around the world show travelers in general are undeterred despite international terrorism threats. According to the United Nations’ World Tourism Organization, international tourism grew 5 percent in the first four months of 2012, and 415 million tourists are expected to travel worldwide this summer. International tourism is expected to increase by 3 to 4 percent for the entire year, CNN recently reported.
The State Department official also suggested to JNS that all U.S. travelers enroll in the Smart Traveler Enrollment Program (STEP) to receive the latest safety and security information from the U.S. embassy, maintain a high level of vigilance and increase their security awareness.
“Terrorism has become a world problem, not just a problem for Israelis,” Fattal told the Washington Post.