Tour companies reeling as Canadians rethink Israel travel plans

By Christopher Reynolds in Montreal

Travel businesses are scrambling to rebook passengers and reroute itineraries as the war sparked by Hamas’s attacks on Israel ramps up.

Following the group’s incursions into the country over the weekend and ongoing rocket assaults, the Israeli military hit back with airstrikes into the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip ahead of a possible ground invasion, amid concerns the fighting could spiral into a regional conflict.

Artzi Korostelev said it’s been all hands on deck at Toronto-based Peerless Travel, as customers reschedule trips to Israel into 2024 and employees work the phones 16 hours a day, while new bookings have screeched to a halt.

“It’s quite hard for people to get over the emotional trauma of the horrors they’ve seen on TV. So it’s totally understandable,” the executive vice-president said of the pause on purchases.

“Travel, at the end of the day, it should be pleasurable and stress-free. So we need to make sure that we’re fulfilling that mission.”

The company had two groups of several dozen tourists in the country when fighting broke out, and two more groups slated to fly there last Saturday, the day the attacks began. About 40 other tour groups were supposed to visit before the end of the year, he said.

The pair of parties already in Israel have been bused to Egypt and Jordan, he said. The company is trying to either rebook the remaining trips or change their itinerary to avert Israel altogether.

The logistical gauntlet faced by Korostelev, who grew up in Israel, and his 60-plus staff members comes as they cope with the fear and tragedy brought on by the escalating conflict.

“The initial shock and grief hit right away,” he said.

“We had to jump in, on one hand, to help people that wanted to fly back,” he said. “On the other hand, we had a lot of Israelis that wanted to fly into Israel to volunteer — medical staff that are on residencies and fellowships abroad here in Canada and the U.S.”

While Israel’s biggest airport remains open, many airlines including Air Canada have cancelled flights to the country this week, with the travel plans of thousands now in limbo.

About 100,000 Canadians visited Israel in 2019, according to the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

Tour operators for whom the Holy Land is not the prime destination are also on high alert.

I.C.T. Travel, which organizes corporate and sports excursions abroad, has already cancelled a package trip to the southern Israeli port town of Eilat after the World Aquatics open water swimming championship — slated to kick off there in late November — was moved to Portugal this week.

“Everybody’s a bit anxious,” said Michael Ionescu, a manager at Montreal-based I.C.T. Travel.

“This is a situation which nobody expected. It seems to be escalating a lot, so we’re paying close attention to it, that’s for sure. Because it could impact our business significantly.

“But I shouldn’t be complaining,” he added. “There’s a bigger picture at stake.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2023.

Banner image via The Canadian Press