Former Pennsylvania Senator—and possible 2016 presidential hopeful—Rick Santorum is wrapping up a three-day trip to Israel. “It’s very sad to be here right now,” he told a Philadelphia radio station when he arrived.
Why? Because he’s lonely.
“Tourism is down 95 percent… You drive around Jerusalem and it feels like a ghost town,” said Santorum, a strong supporter of Israel and a member of the historically Jewish Tau Epsilon Phi fraternity. “It’s quite sad.”
Despite his speculation, Santorum appears to be in good company. There has been a surge of politicians traveling to Israel in recent weeks in the midst of the heated conflict in the Gaza Strip that has left more than 2,000 people dead.
New York Governor Andrew Cuomo visited Israel last week, where he met with outgoing Israeli President Shimon Peres, took a trip to an Iron Dome antimissile system battery, and climbed into a secret tunnel believe to be built by Hamas.
Late last month, former Mayor of New York City Michael Bloomberg flew to Tel Aviv to protest an FAA ban that prevented major U.S. airlines from traveling to the country.
“I’m just trying to show that it’s safe, and a great place to visit, and Israel has a right to defend its people, and they’re doing exactly what they should be doing,” he told CBS New York.
Secretary of State John Kerry, meanwhile, has continued racking up frequent flier miles to Israel in his ongoing attempt to help craft a ceasefire agreement.
Why are so many officeholders headed to the Land of Milk and Honey during a time of crisis? Maybe because it has always been a good way to rack up political points by showing one stands with Israel. After it was reported last week that Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren is planning a trip to Israel, people immediately started speculating that it meant she was gearing up for a presidential run.
Even Texas Governor Rick Perry, who was recently indicted on felony charges that he abused his power in office, is garnering headlines like “Is Perry going to run in 2016? Check his schedule”. Part of his schedule, the Houston Chronicle pointed out, was a “Dallas Stands with Israel” rally.
But are politicians really the only ones in the “ghost town” of Jerusalem, as Santorum suggests?
It’s true that musicians haven’t made a strong showing–Lana Del Ray postponed a show in Tel Aviv that was supposed to be today, while Megadeth, CeeLo Green, the Backstreet Boys, Kansas, and Neil Young all cancelled or postponed shows over the past month, according to Fortune.
But what about, you know, normal tourists? The 3.5 million people that flock to Israel every year and add billions of dollars to the country’s economy?
That number likely hasn’t slipped 95 percent. Ross Belfer of Geoffrey Weill, a firm that handles public relations for the Israel Ministry of Tourism, wrote in an email that “tourism has suffered” but “bars and restaurants are packed; beaches are buzzing as always.” In July, tourist entries were down by 21 percent compared with the same period in 2013, according to statistics he provided. Overall, tourism is up 13 percent this year compared to last year, with 1.9 million tourists visiting the country from January-July, the data show.
Still, Reuters reports that the Gaza flare-up is expected to decrease tourism by 35 percent during the third quarter, citing data from the Israel Hotel Association.
Tourism Minister Uzi Landau was quoted as saying tourism should bounce back quickly, as it did within four to six months after Israeli military operations in 2006, 2009, and 2012.
“For the entire economy (the war) will be a dent but tourism will be two dents,” Landau said.