Tours and cruises canceled, clients depart — travel's week after war broke out in Israel

In the aftermath of Hamas’ devastating Oct. 7 surprise attack on Israel and the all-out war that followed, companies that focus on tours and cruises to Israel and the Palestinian territories braced themselves for what is likely to be a long-term hit on tourism.

But first, they had to focus on getting their clients out of Israel after U.S. airlines canceled all flights there.

“It’s a huge challenge,” John Rose, Altour’s chief risk and security officer, said last Tuesday of carriers dropping service. “So the advisors are doing a fantastic job, but it’s a herculean effort.”

Delta, United and American canceled most flights from Israel through October, leaving Israel’s national carrier, El Al, as the sole airline to not cancel or reduce service, as of press time, between Israel and the U.S.

Rose could not comment on the exact number of travelers Altour parent Internova Travel Group had in Israel at the time of the attacks, but he called it “significant.” 

Most clients were routed through countries such as Romania, the Czech Republic and Morocco and flown back to the U.S. from there. But even getting those clients to the airport, Rose said, was a challenge, with ground operators using “extraordinary caution” due to the risk.

Roy Gal, owner of Memories Forever Travel Group in Fair Lawn, N.J., estimated that he helped around 70 clients leave Israel and that as of Oct. 11 had another 50 waiting to get out. Gal was utilizing a GDS feature that enables advisors to wait-list clients for flights.

“It’s hard,” Gal said. “There are a lot of flights, but there are also hundreds of people that are trying to come in and out. It’s hard, but it’s doable. We’ve been quite successful helping people both ways.”

Sharon Rockman, founder of Sababa Travel in Fanwood, N.J., assisted a couple leaving Israel with the help of her tour operator partner, Doron Harel of Har-El Travels, connecting them to the U.S. via Italy. 

Cruises, tours canceled

As of last week, some tour operators and cruise lines, including all three Norwegian Cruise Line brands, have canceled calls through the end of the year, while others will reassess tour departures from November.

Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours, which specializes in trips to Israel, the Palestinian territories, the Middle East and the Mediterranean, is a native Israeli who was in Tel Aviv when the conflict began. He said the scale of the attack, which he called unprecedented and “the equivalent of 9/11 for Israel,” would “have consequences for a long, long time.”

Overseas Adventure Travel, which sends anywhere from 1,000 to 3,000 travelers to Israel each year, is also concerned about the long-term impact of the conflict on tourism, both to Israel and the surrounding region.

“We’re preparing for the worst,” said CEO Brian FitzGerald, adding that previous conflicts in the region had never resulted in Overseas Adventure Travel’s response at this level. “We made the call to cancel at least the next two weeks, but conservatively, what does this look like if we can’t operate for the next six months or longer?”

Paldi said signs point to Israel travel being off-limits for a while.

“The expectation is for a longer war than ‘usual,’ possibly several weeks. It’s very, very serious this time,” Paldi. But he added that other destinations in the Middle East and the Mediterranean were still safe to visit. “Greece, Turkiye, Dubai, Oman, Morocco have nothing to do with this and are not involved.”

Vicki Freed, Royal Caribbean International’s senior vice president of sales, trade support and service, said that while it’s too early to know how the conflict will impact the cruise industry long-term, “as far as next year goes, I think we just have to see where we are a month from now, two months from now.”

Royal Caribbean canceled two October cruises on the Rhapsody of the Seas from Haifa, Israel, one of many cruise lines that rerouted ships from the country last week, mostly reassigning them to ports in Greece, Cyprus and Turkiye.

Freed noted that when the Ukraine war started, it was not expected to last as long as it has. She said the cruise lines adjusted and have continued sailing Baltic cruises without the Russian city of St. Petersburg on the itinerary.

Tour operators said that as of last week, travel to neighboring countries, including Egypt and Jordan, had not been impacted but that they were fielding increased inquiries about safety. 

“So far, clients haven’t been canceling [Egypt and Jordan], but they are being more cautious about traveling,” said Matt Berna, Intrepid Travel’s president of the Americas. “We’ve been getting a lot of inquiries about safety.”

For some, concerns about Israel’s long-term prospects go beyond their business. 

In addition to canceling her clients’ Israel trips, Sababa Travel’s Rockman is collecting monetary donations to purchase supplies for reservist soldiers called to duty there; Harel, of Har-El Travel, is working to ascertain their needs. 

“My business started out of my love of travel and my love of Israel,” Rockman said. “Of course, it expanded and I do the world, but Israel is my baby. I do what I do because I love Israel, and simply, I’m Jewish. Period. We do what we do, and we come together.” 

Andrea Zelinski contributed to this report. 

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