“Israel is a sought-after tourism product,” says Oren Drori, senior deputy director general at the Tourism Ministry for Israel. He said there is a wide gap between Israel’s political image and its actual image.
In the first half of 2010, a new record was set when 1.6 million tourists visited Israel, according to the Israeli Tourism Ministry. Despite gains over last year, the number of visitors for 2010 is still only slightly ahead of where the numbers were 10 years ago, before the start of the second Palestinian intifada, according to Ami Etgar, director general of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association. Claiming that Israel can do better, Etgar said, “This is a country that every person in the world has a motivation to visit.”
Hotels are not seeing equal gains, however, as a large number of the tourists are day trippers visiting from Egypt, Jordan, Cyprus, and Turkey, according to Eli Gonen, president of the Israel Hotel Association. Also, the numbers include cruise passengers docking at Haifa and Ashdod ports for the day.
Industry experts attribute Israel’s tourism boom to several factors:
– Israel has changed its aviation policies to allow more airlines to land in the country, including charters and low-cost European carriers.
– The evangelical market is growing. Three-fourths of all visitors to Israel are non-Jewish, and 35 percent of those visitors define themselves as pilgrims, according to Drori.
– More Russians are coming, in part because Israel lifted the visa requirement for travelers from Russia in 2008. With the visa restriction now being lifted on Ukraine, visitors from that country are expected to grow as well.
– Tourism traffic from Latin America, particularly Brazil, has risen dramatically. A new El Al route established earlier this year between Tel Aviv and Sao Paulo has helped bring more visitors from South America. “It’s a boom,” Pilgrim Tours’ operations manager Eduardo Kitay said of the agency’s Spanish and Latin American pilgrimage tours. Kitay says the agency is so busy, it may have to turn away groups at the end of the year and into early next year.
– New tourism markets, such as the Far East and Eastern Europe, have begun to send more travelers, while tourists from Germany, England, and France remain steady. North America remains the no. 1 source of tourists to Israel.
The manager of Tel Aviv-based Yarkon Tours, Joseph Mizrachi, says the main increase in bookings has come from Christian visitors. Jerusalem is the agency’s main destination, in addition to such Christian religious sites as the Sea of Galilee (the Kinneret), the Jordan River, the Mount of the Beatitudes and Mount Tabor.
The surge in tourists also has benefited the Palestinian economy by sending visitors to the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Jericho. The Tourism Ministry recently allowed Israeli tour guides into Bethlehem in preparation for leading tours there, and Israel is considering easing restrictions on Israeli visits to Palestinian areas.