It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that Israel is located smack dab in the middle of one of the world’s biggest political hotspots. But it does take a few to keep this tiny country along the eastern Mediterranean safe and secure, and that seems to be why Israel is bouncing back big time in 2015.
Israel is no doubt one of the planet’s top bucket list destinations for travelers from all over the world. As a hub of three of the world’s major religions and being cradle-of-civilization-adjacent, the modern state of Israel literally sits on top of thousands of years of incredibly dense history. At the same time, it is also a diverse, vibrant, trendy, and modern country with great night life that would be a top tourist destination even without its ancient biblical roots.
In the past, semi-frequent wars and skirmishes with its neighbors have kept many would-be tourists at bay, and as recently as last summer a short conflict with the Hamas-led government in Gaza on its southwestern border ensured a recent flood of sensational news headlines in the States and Europe that left Israel’s tourism industry decimated.
But unbeknownst to many, over the past 15 years Israel has implemented a series of both low-tech and high-tech solutions that have amazingly rendered the vast majority of the country perfectly safe and secure even during the occasional flare-ups around its borders.
In 2002, following another round of suicide bombings intentionally targeting Israeli civilians, the government built a physical wall around nearly its entire border with the West Bank. The combination of enormous concrete slabs along some of the more urban stretches with highly sophisticated “smart fences” (which can detect cutting, climbing, jumping, and even stray animals) along the more rural parts of the border almost immediately helped bring about a 98% decline in terrorism in the country by the following year.
Similarly, Israel’s state-of-the-art Iron Dome missile defense system detects and shoots down any rockets that are now fired into the country from the militants who embed themselves in civilian neighborhoods in the neighboring Gaza Strip. While these rockets usually don’t go any farther than the desert area surrounding that border, ones that find their way farther into the country are met with not one but two Iron Dome intercept missiles as backup. Israel is even now nearing completion of a much more advanced system to intercept and destroy longer range guided missiles, such as the kind that more militarized countries like Iran would have access to.
While we in the United States have only had marginal success developing our own missile defense systems dating back to the days of the Star Wars initiatives under President Reagan, Israel has implemented a system of both tight border and air security that allows Israelis to now go about their daily lives under a blanket of relative calm, stability, and security. For tourists to Israel, this means that visiting the country and even traveling around within it is completely safe, despite the occasional incident or flare up that makes the news back home.
Last September, just two months after the brief conflict on its border with the Gaza Strip, a friend visited Israel for a week of vacation just to see what the situation was like on the ground. As predicted, hotels were empty, ancient and holy sites that are usually bustling were quiet, and tour guides were out of work and twiddling their thumbs on their couches. My friend said he felt like he had the whole country to himself at times, and indeed he was posting no shortage of fabulous selfies of himself alone at the King David Hotel’s pool and walking around the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, the Wailing Wall, and the Mount of Olives without anyone else in sight.
Despite tourists’ initial queasiness with returning to Israel in mid to late 2014, this year has begun to see a return to higher levels of international visitors. Just this month, in fact, Israel once again hosted the Middle East’s only LGBT Pride celebration in Tel Aviv and it was its largest one to date, not to mention one of the world’s hottest (and I’m not talking temperature) and most diverse Pride celebrations anywhere.
DJs on the beach pumped music out over the white sand and azure Mediterranean by day, and clubs and bars packed in crowds from all over Israel in addition to Europe, Asia, Africa, and North and South America by night. Cafes, restaurants, and tourist sites throughout the rest of the country were finally bustling again, and many visitors were even giving Jordan a little tourist love too by jetting over to Petra for a day while they were close by.
There’s no doubt that the political situation in the region remains tense and there are some very serious and consequential issues of territory, citizenship, and governance of the Palestinian people that must be settled before a true blanket of peace will fall on this part of the Middle East. But even while the political processes, dialogues, negotiations, and yes even occasional fights and skirmishes continue, the reality on the ground within Israel proper is that the country is certainly a secure and safe destination for international tourists to visit.