The Kosher Riviera

  • The Ritz-Carlton, Herzliya (pictured throughout), opened last December as the first hotel in Israel from a major luxury brand.
<< Back to Robb Report, December 2014
  • Jack Smith

The threat of conflict forever clouds Israel’s tourism industry, though you may never know it in the high tech–fueled coastal town of Herzliya. 

In the spring of 2014, the relative calm before the storm in Israel, a yacht raced from the Herzliya marina and out into the open sea. The thicket of sailing masts in the harbor slowly faded from the passengers’ view, sinking below the horizon like some minor Atlantis. An hour out to sea, the wheel lashed to windward, the shipmates broke out the Champagne. The sun warmed their faces, and the Mediterranean slapped against the bow.  

It was the kind of scene that belonged on a travel poster, an idyllic day in a desirable destination. The previous year had in fact been Israel’s most-visited ever—with more than 3.5 million tourists coming to the country—and the first few months of 2014 were running 3 percent ahead of that pace. Confidence in the country’s tourism was at an all-time high, as evidenced by the gleaming new edifice that overlooked the marina: the Ritz-Carlton, Herzliya, which had opened a few months earlier as Israel’s first hotel from an elite luxury chain. 

There was little about this halcyon tableau to suggest that up and down the coast a state of siege prevailed, a political reality that, with some exceptions, mandated military service for every Israeli. On July 7, however, the country’s uneasy détente with Palestine came to a violent end when Israel and the ruling authority in Gaza began exchanging airstrikes, turning the region into a war zone. 

In the days to come, images of Israel’s high-tech Iron Dome defense blasting Hamas missiles out of the sky would become staples of nightly newscasts. Predictably, travel to Israel plummeted, with hotel occupancies dropping 60 percent as the U.S. State Department and some European governments banned flights to the country’s hub and cautious tourists made plans to vacation in less contentious climes. Fast-forward a few months, however, and the tourist tide has started turning again. 

“The entire hospitality segment has been affected,” says Gadi Hassin, general manager at the Ritz-Carlton, Herzliya. “Recovery is slow, but 2015 is forecast to be a very good year, if stable.”

For some frequent travelers to Israel, now is as good a time as any to go. “Israel remains a great place to visit,” says Cheryl Fishbein, an attorney and clinical psychologist in Manhattan who, with her husband, Philip Shatten, is a regular visitor. “I was there during the Second Intifada, which began in 2000, and Phil was there during the Persian Gulf War in 1991, when Saddam Hussein was bombarding Israel with Scuds.” Now she plans to return in February. “Thanks to the Iron Dome, it’s safer than ever. Beyond that, whether the country is at peace or at war, the weather is great, there are new galleries and restaurants opening up, and the beaches are uncrowded.”

David Segal, a Philadelphia tax attorney, says that he felt no more at risk during his October 2014 visit than he would in his U.S. hometown. “If you can ignore what you hear and see on TV, Israel is one of the safest places on the planet. My wife and daughter and three grandchildren have lived there since 2000, and I couldn’t let them live there unless I had complete confidence in Israel’s ability to fend off an attack by its enemies,” says Segal, whose daughter, a professional makeup artist, spent her military service as an F16 jet mechanic. “There’s no country that provides greater security for its people.”

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