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10 May, 2024

Israel pulled out of the ATM Dubai. So did I. Here’s why.

Bangkok — In 2023, Israel was present at the Arabian Travel Mart in Dubai. So was I. This year, Israel gave it a miss. So did I. For pretty much the same reasons, I would think.

It does not take much to figure why Israel was absent at this year’s ATM between 6-9 May 2024. Every day, millions of people worldwide are being exposed to images of the ongoing Israeli genocide in Gaza, dead or dying Palestinian babies, uprooted families, devastation beyond belief. The Israeli government stands unbowed and unrelenting.

That this “1,000 eyes for one eye” policy will leave the whole world blind is a foregone conclusion. It is already unfolding — on the streets, in university campuses, theatres and auditoriums, conferences and sports arenas.

Not exactly good for the image of Israel, nor promoting tourism to Israel.

The Israeli pavilion at the ATM 2023

So, the Israelis stayed out of the ATM.

And so did I.

I just could not see myself attending press conferences and panel discussions, hearing about health & wellness products to “soothe the body, mind and soul”, attending cocktails and dinners, while thousands of innocent civilians, especially women and children, are being slaughtered and starved just a few hundred kilometres away.

As a journalist, I can choose to stay away. I have access to many other off-site sources of information, such as the ATM website, media releases and social media platforms.

Businesspeople don’t have that choice. The Gulf region still remains one of the few parts of the world where “normalcy” prevails, people still have purchasing power and both inbound-outbound tourism is on a roll.

Commercial interests compulsorily take priority over any pangs of conscience. Totally understandable.

Not surprising, then, that the show was attended by more than 46,000 visitors from 160 countries – an 11% rise over last year, according to the organisers Reed Travel Exhibitions. Social media posts by many participants were full of images of the trade-floor buzz.

These trade visitors are well aware that they are operating on a wing and a prayer.

Just a few weeks ago last April, Israel and Iran came dangerously close to all out war. Aviation took an immediate hit as air-routes were hastily rejigged to avoid the danger zones.

Luckily for the ATM and indeed, the entire Gulf region, intense diplomatic efforts averted a wider conflagration. But it treated only the symptoms and not the cause.

The situation is worsening by the day.

The bloodbath in Gaza is far from over. The right-wing extremist fanatics pulling the levers of power in the Israeli government are quite clear about their goals. Palestine has to be wiped off the map. The depopulation of Gaza will be followed by the ethnic cleansing of the West Bank. Then, the Israelis will go after Iran.

The conflict is already having a worldwide ripple effect. And grassroots movements are rising up in support of the underdogs — this time, clearly the Palestinians.

American businesses are set to feel the pinch. So will the Gulf countries.

The Arab street, too, is getting increasingly restless and frustrated with its leaders. Once powerful countries are sitting helplessly as Arab voices are sidelined and Muslims are denigrated as terrorists. Arab leaders live in fear of falling victim to the next U.S. regime change operation, unless they play ball and keep buying billions of dollars worth of useless weaponry.

All this in addition to the growing geopolitical risks agenda worldwide — the conflict in Ukraine, the possible return of Donald Trump as US President, China-U.S. tensions, the rise of hate-spewing extremist, nationalistic politicians such as in India. Plus the looming climate change disaster, the destabilising impact of the AI wave, changing demographics, etc.

In travel & tourism forums, these threats are sidestepped with a shoulder-shrug, as if nothing can be done about them or they are too sensitive and/or controversial to be tabled.

Nearly all the panel discussions at the ATM 2024 stayed within the usual comfort zones — technology, sustainability, luxury products, Chinese and Indian travellers, health & wellness, cruising, the promise of an open-door Saudi Arabia, etc., etc.

Only two sessions focussed on “economic disruptions” and “Future-Proofing”.

Businesses, especially small & medium sized enterprises, cannot survive in this insecure, living-in-denial operating environment.

It is intrinsically unfair for them to be forced to live from crisis to crisis, without some clarity about when and how it is all going to end. And it is grossly irresponsible of industry leaders to sweep it all under the carpet.

If the threat of a Covid-19 pandemic had to be dealt with forcefully and immediately in order to prevent it from getting worse, on what grounds can this current Big C, Conflict, be swept under the carpet?

The Israeli absence at the ATM 2024 went unreported in the local media. But there are monumental lessons to be learnt, especially for the MICE sector.

As the Palestine conflict grinds on, Israel may find itself having to voluntarily pull out of other events, or be asked to stay out of others. Or other countries may simply pull out in protest against an Israeli presence.

The Israelis will respond with their usual “anti-Semitism” screeches. They and their supporters will threaten to retaliate.

The downward spiral will continue. An eye for an eye will leave the MICE sector blind.

Just about the entire chain of command in travel will be affected, via higher security hassles and costs, reimposition of visa curbs, and more.

That is not a possibility but, the way things are going, a certainty.

I knew I would not find any answers at the ATM Dubai.

On the contrary, I may even land up getting into trouble just for seeking answers.

Which is why I pulled out. It was just not worth the time and expense.

As for those who had no choice except to be there for business reasons, make sure you operate in a cash-up-front mode, bills are paid and have proper insurance coverage.