Tourism to Israel is down, but optimism abounds

In Tel Aviv, the Carmel  Market is a big draw. Photo by Marc Shapiro
In Tel Aviv, the Carmel Market is a big draw.
Photo by Marc Shapiro

For a country only slightly larger than New Jersey, Israel offers a diversity of activities and scenery — mountains, desert, beaches, wineries, museums and history of literally biblical proportions — for tourists from all over the world.

It also serves as a destination for people of varying backgrounds, with holy sites important to the Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths. Despite all of this, tourism to Israel was down about 12.6 percent January to July 2015 compared with that same period in 2014, according to Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

Israelis and those in the tourism industry point to various factors, including the world economy, especially the decreased value of the euro and the financial crisis in Greece, as well as 2014’s Operation Protective Edge, which saw fighting between Israel and Gaza in July and August, and the media frenzy that accompanied it.

“It’s a destination that you almost don’t have to market if everything is quiet,” said Uri Steinberg,  of the Israel Tourism Commissioner for North America, a position in Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.

A record 3.6 million people visited Israel in 2013, and there was a significant increase in the first half of 2014, but ultimately that year topped off at 3.3 million visitors, less than the year before.

Steinberg said the picture changes depending on how you look at the numbers and notes that last year was still a good year.

“In June 2014, people were afraid of not having places to put tourists,” he said.

The outlook with regard to tourism from North America is less bleak.

From January to July, tourism from North America is down 4.8 percent compared to 2014, but up 2.2 percent compared to 2013, the year in which Israel experienced record-breaking tourism numbers.

While El Al Israel Airlines also suffered last summer, with a 62 percent decrease in operating profit in the third quarter of 2014, things have picked back up for the airline, which recently announced the purchase of 15 additional aircraft and the possibility of adding 13 more in the future. The company announced a net profit of $17.3 million in the second quarter of 2015.

The company had a net profit high of $57.9 million in the third quarter of 2013, which dropped to $10.1 million in the third quarter of 2014 due to military action.

Tourism from the United States, which sends the largest percentage of tourists to Israel (about 18 percent of its total), is strong, Steinberg suggests, because of the U.S. economy’s improvements in recent years. In Europe, however, it’s a different story.

“The euro has really damaged the incoming tourism from various countries to Israel,” Steinberg said. “People have been feeling it the last couple of months really hard.”

At press time, 1 euro equaled 4.21 Israeli shekels.

Elie Gertler, a Jerusalem resident and a licensed tour guide since the 1960s, said that, in addition to the euro being distressed, Israel is an expensive country for travelers, pointing to the high price of hiring a private car for tours as well as the high price of gas. He’s seen a decline in clientele and thinks the decline in overall tourism is even higher than 20 percent.

“Right now I work with the ministry [of tourism] because there is no work,” he said, adding that his private bookings pay more. While his calendar is usually booked solid from July to December, during a weeklong tour in late July he lamented that his next job wasn’t for a few weeks, and his calendar beyond that was very much open.

Yuval Frucht, a driver with North Negev Tours who lives in Netanya, said business is about 50 percent off, but his company, which has about 120 buses, hasn’t laid off anyone.

“I sit at home too much,” he said. But the company keeps busy with business from Israelis, including the military and schools. It’s not just tour guides and drivers who suffer when tourism is down, he said.

“It’s tour guides, restaurants, hotels; it’s one big circle,” said Frucht. “The airports, the bell boys. Businesses close because of war.”

Oded Schickler, a tour guide with Ramon Desert Tours, which gives tours of the Ramon Crater, said the two months during the fighting last summer were tough for his company. There were less youth programs and less American families. But this past winter was one of their best, he said, because a lot of
Jewish tourists came to Israel to support the country.

For some lucky tour guides, things haven’t slowed down. Asaf Salomon, a licensed freelance tour guide who works with different companies and conducts private tours for likes of The Rolling Stones, said that although friends and colleagues have felt the decline, he hasn’t. He thinks it has to do with his personal situation, since he guides VIP tours for the Western Wall tunnels in Hebrew and English, works with Hebrew University, the National Library of Israel, the AJC and the Shalom Hartman Institute and also guides congregations, Birthright groups and Jewish schools. While some agencies he works with have had a drop in groups, he’s been assigned his usual amount of groups.

Salomon said he can empathize with those who get spooked by the media, which he feels doesn’t showcase the positive sides of Israel.

“People hear about Israel in security issues, and the other aspects are not shown enough; culture, history, religion, food, high-tech, etc.,” he said via email. “I also think that the news that comes out about the region has an effect — Syria, Egypt, ISIL. [It] doesn’t really sound welcoming. If people want to travel to a place and visit a region, I’m not sure this is a choice I would make if that’s the news I was receiving.”

Other tour guides share Salomon’s sentiment.

“I’ve been to the U.S. … I look at the news and I say, ‘I’m not going back home,’” Frucht said. “The truth is everything is OK. It’s quiet. It’s nice.”

Caroline Shapiro, spokeswoman for the historic Tower of David and Museum of the History of Jerusalem, which has seen a 20 percent dip in visitors, recommends those interested in traveling to Israel check event calendars in various cities to find festivals and other cultural opportunities.

“We hope that people continue to come to Jerusalem and discover a city not only rich in history and prayers, but a city diversely rich in cultures, in art, drama and dance,” she said. “While the media looks for the negative to report, the rest of the country and its visitors from abroad don’t have to look far to find the positive and to enjoy the fusion of old and new in Israel.”

Salomon thinks Israel needs to invest in reaching individual travelers and cost-friendly tourism and advertise the diversity of sites and activities the country has to offer.

That’s precisely what the Ministry of Tourism is doing, Steinberg said.

“The Middle East is a hot spot and we have to acknowledge that. It’s about
targeting those audiences, targeting those influences in those circles like rabbis, pastors and priests who can really convince their followers,” he said. “It’s about safety and a transformative experience.”

And it’s been working, Steinberg said, as Israel has seen more faith-based travelers from places such as India and Brazil.

“The idea of walking where Jesus walked is a very powerful one in Brazil,” he said.
He said the ministry is undergoing a “significant digital revolution” to try to reach specific people in a personal way.

“One of the most remarkable things in Israel is it has so many faces that fit so many different audiences that it feels like they’re living almost in a fantasy. People can connect you to who you are
whether you’re in the LGBT community, the Jewish community, the Catholic community,” Steinberg said. “It’s a crossroads for so many different things.”

Marc Shapiro is senior writer for the Baltimore Jewish Times.

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