In late September 2001, my wife and I ventured to Los Angeles' Brentwood Country Mart for some rotisserie chicken and fries from the almighty Reddi Chick, when we stumbled upon an unattended backpack near the Mart's fire pit. With the 9/11 attacks fresh in our (and presumably, everyone's) minds, and with my wife having lived her formative years in Israel, we frantically grabbed the nearest security guard in hopes that he'd either immediately track down the backpack's owner or clear the area and make sure the pack was safe.
The security guard looked at both of us like we were from Mars.
That incident immediately came to mind after my discussion with Raffi Sadeh and Rafi Baeri, CEO and vice president of marketing and sales, respectively, at Dan Hotels, which has long been Israel's largest hotel company. Sadeh and Baeri were making the rounds in New York last week to meet with travel agents to talk about the 13-unit company's expansion plans, which include a 100-room Tel Aviv property slated to open toward the end of the year as well as its first non-Israel property, a 220-room hotel in Bangalore, India, that is scheduled to open this summer.
With about 40% of Dan Hotels' non-Israel guests coming from the U.S., Sadeh and Baeri were publicizing how Israel's burgeoning tech community and reputation as one of the world's most LGBT-friendly countries is complementing its standing as a must-visit destination for faith-based travelers.
Still, Israelis are nothing if not realistic when it comes to geopolitical turmoil, especially as the subject has become more topical amid the recent slate of European terror attacks as well as U.S. president Donald Trump's proposed travel ban. With that in mind, the Dan executives acknowledged that they continue to field questions from the travel community about the potential for terror attacks.
Such questions, they said, pop up amid events such as last week's stabbing attack by a Palestinian man that injured four people at a beachside Tel Aviv hotel and last June's terror shooting in the city that killed four people.
That said, and to the detriment of cities all over Europe, the increasing regularity of attacks in cities such as Istanbul, Brussels, Nice and Paris (that city's November 2015 attacks which resulted in 130 deaths caused me to cancel a planned trip to France the following month at the urging of my wife) has taken some of the spotlight off of Israel and has caused the country to appear safer, at least by comparison, as decades of attacks and threats have pushed the country to the forefront of public security. Those Europe fears were stoked once again last month when a gunman opened fire on Paris' Champs-Elysees, killing one police officer. ISIS claimed responsibility.
Moreover, the potential for terror attacks has become all the more topical, not to mention politically expedient, as Trump continues to push for a travel ban from several predominantly Muslim countries.
"The geopolitical situation [in the Middle East] is in the back of everyone's minds, but terrorists are everywhere these days," Sadeh said. "Many people who travel to Israel believe that at least the Israelis are trying to prevent anything from happening. They're saying, 'This would've never happened in Israel.'"
Of course, few suppliers want to hinge the attractiveness of their destination on the concept of advanced anti-terror security, and Dan Hotels, like Israel tourism officials, is following suit. That means pushing Jerusalem as ground zero (for lack of a better term) for faith-based travel. Dan Hotels' iconic King David Hotel predates the 1948 establishment of the Israeli state by 17 years. But it also entails burnishing Tel Aviv's growing reputation as a social center for LGBT travelers
Has the effort worked?
Well, pop culture references don't always do the country any favors. Sure, one viewing (or a few, in my case) of the 2008 Adam Sandler film "You Don't Mess With the Zohan" portrays an Israel party lifestyle that includes a beach scene with crystal blue waters, dancing and chants of "Disco! Disco!" (not to mention waaaayyyyy too much of Sandler), but there's also plenty of cartoonish violence with a terrorism subtext and references to long-standing battles with Palestinians.
Then again, a Boston Globe headline from last March blared: "Welcome to Tel Aviv, the gayest city on Earth."
Meanwhile, the country continues to invest in its infrastructure. The Trans-Israel Highway, which started being built about 15 years ago, is more than 100 miles long and has eased north-south car travel, while other investments are being made along Tel Aviv's coastline to better serve beachgoers.
And tourism is up substantially within the past decade. Last year, Israel attracted 3.1 million visitors, which is down 13% from the record 3.52 million visitors in 2012 but still represents a 67% jump from a decade earlier, according to the country's tourism ministry.
How much Israel and the polarizing effect it can have on some citizens is impacting how Dan Hotels is approaching its effort to expand internationally is unclear. Like Israel, India continues to boost its reputation as a global technology hub. Still, the hotel company has curiously chosen to label its Bangalore hotel under the name Den instead of Dan, though it said it's choosing that name to better illustrate how the hotel will provide a comfortable living space, i.e., a den for business travelers looking for an escape from the activity outside, not to mention Bangalore's notoriously bad traffic.
"In India, our hotels need to be more than just a place to put your head at night," Baeri said. "It's a full-use hotel and represents very much the experience of a living room atmosphere."
With that in mind, the company is looking to eventually open a handful of hotels in India under the Den badge.
In the meantime, the 71-year-old Sadeh, who was born in Jerusalem, said Israel's reputation among global travelers has come a long way.
"I remember when people asked me if you could see camels in the street," Sadeh said. "We have problems like every other country, but travelers know it's a modern country."
And one where safety, or at least an effort to preserve it, is front and center.
For example, during my one trip to Israel, a good-size swell hit the Mediterranean, sending 3- to 4-foot waves to the beaches of Bat Yam, just south of Tel Aviv. My excitement, and resulting bodysurfing session, was short-lived, however, when a lifeguard immediately signaled for me to get out of the water, and indicated that the waves were too big for anyone to be swimming without a surfboard or bodyboard.
When I protested and explained to him that I grew up bodysurfing larger waves in California, he glanced down at the gun in his holster and glanced back at me, fully conveying his message without saying another word.