'Shock and grief' now part of the job for tour companies amid Israel-Hamas war
Christopher Reynolds, The Canadian Press
Published Thursday, October 12, 2023 3:39PM EDT
Last Updated Thursday, October 12, 2023 7:38PM EDT
MONTREAL - For Artzi Korostelev, the professional is now tragically personal.
The executive vice-president of Toronto-based tour company Peerless Travel grew up in Israel and, like many of his 60-plus staff members, maintains deep links to family and friends in his home country.
Fear and horror struck on the weekend after a brazen attack Hamas launched from Gaza that killed hundreds of civilians and led Israel to declare a war against the militant group.
“The initial shock and grief hit right away,” Korostelev 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.”
Korostelev added that the personal toll on his employees is dwarfed by the trauma confronting residents of the region.
Travel operators are scrambling to rebook passengers, reroute itineraries and navigate logistical gauntlets and their own distress as the war sparked by Hamas's attack ramps up.
Following the group's incursions into Israel 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.
The Associated Press reports at least 2,700 people have died on both sides of the conflict.
Korostelev said it's been all hands on deck, 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,” he 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 agency 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 there were bused to Egypt earlier this week, he said.
The company is trying to either rebook the remaining trips or change their itineraries to avert Israel altogether.
Canadian officials said Wednesday that about 700 people in Israel who have a connection to Canada have asked for help to leave since the violence erupted.
The Royal Canadian Air Force completed its first airlift of Canadians on Thursday, with 128 citizens, permanent residents or their relatives landing in Athens on a military flight from Tel Aviv. A second flight with just over 150 passengers was taxiing for departure from Tel Aviv on Thursday afternoon.
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.”
Airlines, hotels and cruise lines are among businesses affected by the region's renewed violence.
A slew of carriers including United Airlines, EasyJet, Ryanair, Wizz Air, Air France, Lufthansa and Emirates have suspended flights to Israel, as have American Airlines through Dec. 4 and Delta Air Lines for the rest of the month.
Air Canada cancelled flights to Tel Aviv through Oct. 14, and said it is allowing passengers booked on its routes between Israel's biggest city and Toronto and Montreal to reschedule or opt for a refund.
“Tel Aviv is an important market for us, and Air Canada will resume operations as soon as the situation stabilizes,” spokeswoman Angela Mah said in an email.
Marty Firestone, president of Toronto-based insurance broker Travel Secure, warned that some hotel and cruise customers hoping for reimbursement may be out of luck.
One couple he was in touch with this week paid $15,000 for a cruise that was slated to set off for Israel this Monday. “They're going nowhere right now,” he said, adding that a refund was not on offer.
- With files from Dylan Robertson in Ottawa
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2023.