Tourists flocking to Israel at record pace

By Marcy Oster, JTA

JERUSALEM – Israeli tour guide Yossi Weiss was leading two busloads of American Christian pilgrims on a tour of Jerusalem’s Old City when he made an observation.

As the group visited the Temple Mount, Robinson’s Arch and other famous sites on Monday, Weiss, who recently was named chairman of the Israel Tour Guides Association, noted that the Jewish Quarter was so crowded and busy it was difficult to move around.

It was one sign of the record year Israeli tourism is having.

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Despite the handwringing over Israel’s image overseas, the political direction of the Jewish state and the persistence of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, visitors are continuing to flock to Israel – more than ever.

In the first half of 2010, some 1.6 million tourists visited Israel, setting a new record, according to the Israeli Tourism Ministry. That constituted an increase of 39 percent from the first half of 2009, which followed the Gaza war, and a 10 percent increase over 2008, Israel’s previous record year for tourism.

“Israel is a sought-after tourism product,” said Oren Drori, senior deputy director general at the Tourism Ministry. There is a wide gap between Israel’s political image and its actual image, Drori said.

Despite the gains over last year, the number of visitors for 2010 is 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. Israel can do better, he said.

“This is a country that every person in the world has a motivation to visit,” he said.

Furthermore, the record numbers have not translated into equal gains for Israeli hotels because many of the tourists are day trippers visiting from Egypt, Jordan, Cyprus and Turkey, according to Eli Gonen, president of the Israel Hotel Association. The numbers also include the passengers on cruises that dock in Haifa and Ashdod ports. For nearly a decade, cruise ships did not stop in Israel due to ongoing security issues, but they have returned in recent months, and bookings have increased for 2011.

“We are glad that people are coming to visit the country,” Gonen said. “We hope they will come again and stay longer.”

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 than ever before, 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, too.

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 that it may have to turn away groups interested 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 tourist from Germany, England and France remain steady. North America remains the No. 1 source of tourists to Israel.

Tourism Ministry officials attribute their success in promoting Israel to implementation of the recommendations from a 2006 report by Ernst & Young on Israeli tourism that found that Israel has the potential to more than double the number of annual visitors, to between 4 million and 5 million per year. The way to get there, the report said, was to promote Israel’s attractions while minimizing any negative feelings associated with its political developments.

The study propelled the Tourism Ministry to develop “intensive, segmented and focused” marketing and advertising campaigns to improve Israel’s image as a tourism destination while targeting specific audiences, Drori said. Over the last year, targeted advertising campaigns have run in the United States, Russia, Germany, France, Britain, Scandinavia and Brazil, ministry officials said.

The manager of Tel Aviv-based Yarkon Tours, Joseph Mizrachi, says the main increase in bookings has come from Christian visitors. Jerusalem is their main destination, in addition to such Christian religious sites as the Sea of Galilee (Kinneret), the Jordan River, the Mount of the Beatitudes and Mount Tabor.

The surge in tourists has also benefited the Palestinian economy by sending visitors to the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Jericho. Though Israeli passport-holders are barred by law from entering areas fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority, known as Area A, 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.

Weiss, of the Tour Guide Association, says August and September do not look very promising yet. The American market, which usually books well in advance, appears to be waiting until the last minute, he said, speculating that worried about the economy could be the reason.

“It puts some uncertainty into the equation,” he said.