This week Israelis were out in force in the nation's parks and tourist attractions, as always during the Succot holiday. Also this week, the country enjoyed a less familiar, but very welcome, feeling of hotels filled to capacity with returning tourists.
The annual conference of the International Christian Embassy in Jerusalem alone, for example, brought four thousand pilgrims from 70 countries. On the whole, tourism is up 41 percent over the first eight months of this year.
The tourism ministry predicts that the 2005 total will reach 1.8 million tourists.
This is more than twice the number of tourists who came in 2002, at the height of the Palestinian terror offensive, but still short of the 2.4 million peak reached in 2000.
Measured by another tourism metric, the number of person/nights stayed in Israeli hotels, tourism is showing a similar rebound of 40% so far this year compared to 2004. But we still remain far below the record of almost 10 million tourist person/nights reached in 2000. Through August, tourists accounted for about 4.6 million person/nights.
For some reason, the number of cruise passengers visiting Israel, which reached 255,000 in 2000 and fell to essentially zero after that, has reached only 8,200 this year. This is a huge increase over the 200 passengers who stopped in Israel in 2004, but nowhere near the potential shown by the pre-2000 levels.
It is, accordingly, encouraging that the tourism ministers of Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority recently met publicly for the first time, and committed to quarterly meetings in the future.
For Israel, however, it is not too early to contemplate not only reaching the tourism levels of the year 2000, but where the potential lies for growth beyond this level. Tourism, we must remember, is not just another industry, but an important component of our relationship with the Diaspora and with the international community.
A poll conducted among almost 1,500 American Jews by Hebrew University professor Steven M. Cohen earlier this year found that 63% had never visited Israel. Another 20% had been only once. Over half could not answer basic questions, such as whether Ariel Sharon and Shimon Peres belonged to the same party, whether Israeli Arabs sit in the Knesset, or whether Amos Oz is an Israeli singer.
Much attention has deservedly been paid to the need to bring young Jews to Israel through such programs as birthright israel, or to visit, work or study for longer periods. This is a critical objective and resources for it should be increased. But there also should be a national effort to increase tourism to Israel, only partly for economic reasons.
Visits to Israel, whether for young people or adults, are the best way to bolster both fraying Jewish connections to Israel in particular, and to Jewish identity - and therefore the Jewish future - in general. Many birthright participants, for example, join their 10-day trips with almost no relationship to their communities or Jewish life where they live, or to Israel, and yet discover they are part of people, a history, and deeply connected to the Jewish national home.
But Diaspora Jews should not think that the time to visit Israel ends at the age of 26. One wonders how many families have not visited Israel but have been to Europe. Israel is about the same distance away from the United States.
The truth is that Israel is a fabulous place to take a vacation, even if such deeper concerns, such as history and identity, were not on the table. The weather is great, and there is an astonishing amount to see and do in what is, especially for most Diaspora Jews, a very compact space.
Welcome, then, to all of you who have joined us this week. Please share the secret that this is a safe and fascinating country, worth a visit for families looking for an enjoyable vacation. Just that is reason enough to come. Few, if any, other vacation destinations have a similar potential of offering a small but significant additional dimension to - not just a nice, but forgettable, break from - life back home.