A close-up look at the "crisis in tourism:" Our seminar center here at Shorashim operates a hostel in a little village of 11 mobile home units, each sleeping a family or up to 10 teens; in addition, our dining room aspires to serve more than institutional teen-food, and offers several very successful buffet menus for adult tour groups as well as for private affairs like bar mitzvahs etc. Since the hostel is too small to accept large Israeli school tours (who often travel with 150-250 kids), and too "rustic" to get mainstream adult tourism, our main market niches for accommodations (the most profitable part of the operation) have traditionally been North American teen groups during the summer, and vacationing Israeli families in late summer and during school holidays. And most of our educational seminar activity has also depended on American teen groups -- primarily during July, but with a constant low level of activity from long-term programs and spring and winter trips.
In a typical year, we would have 95% occupancy, full-board, for July and early August, by teen groups, and a few more weeks of high occupancy by families during August. In addition, it was not unusual to see 3,000 participants in half-day Jewish-Arab coexistence seminars during a summer, with another 1,000 or so tourists arriving for other programs such as our study tours in places like Safed and Zippori.
This summer, we housed 5 small teen groups (5-20 kids) for a night or two, ten small coexistence seminars, and a few miscellaneous other programs, in several cases for groups of five or six teens. And our experience was typical. We did manage to fill many units with Israeli families from Tish'ah B'Av until now, with reservations strong until mid-August, but this population is bed-and-breakfast only, leaving the dining room underutilized and the educational staff idle.
Those who operate the youth tourism programs that come to us for accommodation and for programming say that even if the "situation" were suddenly to improve, the flow of Jewish youth tourism will take years to reestablish, as it was never easy to convince North American Jewish kids to sign up for Israel programs -- and many of those who came did so as a result of personal, word-of-mouth marketing: kids knew kids who had had a great experience in Israel and were thus motivated to register for trips. Next summer, however, it will be two years since more than a few teens have come on such programs; next summer's 10th and 11trh graders won't have any 11th and 12th graders to tell them how great the trip was...
This extended "drought" has caused us to realign our educational programming development, focusing more intensively on projects for Israeli schools and the general public. The annual flood of tourists had spoiled us; we spent the off season training and organizing and preparing materials for the "summer people," and it was easy to put off making any serious effort to create programs designed to impact on Israeli society. Now, no more flood; we have to justify our existence and earn a living by serving the educational needs of our own back yard -- probably a healthier situation; certainly a challenging one.
Meanwhile, with respect to the family vacation market, we have found that our "neither orthodox nor secular" atmosphere puts us at a double disadvantage: orthodox families who need a daily minyan are put off by having to drive to town to pray every morning; and most of them are unwilling to participate in our egalitarian service on shabbat; on the other hand, secular families are put off by our asking them not to barbecue on shabbat and holidays. It seems that in tourism, as in everything else in Israel, we can't escape from the religious and ideological divisions that beset us.