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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Following a difficult 12 months for Israel's tourism industry as a result of the Second Lebanon War last summer, industry experts are confident that this summer will be a step in the direction towards full recovery.
"We estimate that there will be a rise in the number of incoming tourists of at least 20 percent as compared with last summer," CEO of the Ministry of Tourism, Shaul Tzamach, told The Jerusalem Post.
The Second Lebanon War, halted the country's steady tourism growth since 2002, causing the Tourism Ministry to miss its goal of 2.2 million tourists in 2006, which saw only 1.8 million visitors come to the country, compared to 1.9 million tourists in 2005. In addition, the first few months of 2007 did not show a significant increase, "because the decisions to come to Israel during this time were made last summer during the war," explained Israel Hotels Association CEO Shmuel Tzurel, who reported a continuing drop in hotel lodging numbers during the first third of 2007 as compared with the first third of 2006.
Tzamach, who claims that his ministry has a conservative estimation, says, "[In 2007] we hope to at least return to the number [of tourists that visited Israel] in 2005."
Ami Etgar, CEO of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association, is even more optimistic. "While the first months of 2007 were worse than the first months of 2006, our expectations for the summer show that we should be able to achieve our goal of 2 million-2.1 million tourists this year," he told The Jerusalem Post.
Travel agencies in both Israel and the United States report a large demand for plane tickets to Israel this summer. "Airfares are 15% more expensive than they were last summer and planes are quite full," said Mark Feldman, CEO of Zion Tours in Jerusalem.
Miriam of Do All Travel, a travel agency in New York that deals with many tourists traveling to Israel, agrees. "Flights are sold out, prices are high, people are coming," she said.
Registration for youth programs in Israel this summer is also growing. David Cutler, director of the Orthodox Union's National Conference of Synagogue Youth (NCSY)'s summer programs, reports that there is a huge growth in high school students attending the organization's summer programs in Israel. "Our Israel programs are all sold out. Our registration is awesome. We even had to expand two programs because we had a waiting list that we wanted to accommodate," he said.
Taglit-birthright israel also is reporting an enormous increase in registration for this summer.
"As a result of a $30 million dollar contribution we were able to almost double the amount of people that we usually bring each year," said Gidi Mark, the international director of marketing for taglit-birthright israel.
"This summer we will have 24,000 people attending our various programs, with another 6,000 for whom we had no room. This will be the largest number ever of students from the Diaspora in Israel during one season," he said.
A question that many people are asking, however, is how the daily Kasaam attacks on Sderot and the Western Negev as well as talks about another possible war this summer may affect the tourism predictions for the summer.
"The talks about a war this summer definitely do not help or encourage tourism," said Tzurel. "The fact that they are shooting at us doesn't help. But those who live in Israel know that the talks of a war and the situation in Sderot do not influence the daily life of most of the citizens in the country. Approximately 40% of tourists who travel to Israel are not first timers, they are familiar with the country and the situation and so they have the ability to make a better judgment," he said.
Yaakov Matrani, the chairman of the Israel Tour Guides Association, seems to agree. "[What is happening in Sderot] is in the background. People know what is happening there, and people always ask us if it is okay to come here and whether it is safe. People know that Sderot is in the periphery and not in the center of the country. If things continue like this I do not think that the situation will influence tourism," he said.
Yet, even with this relatively optimistic summer tourism preview, there is still a long way to go. "[Even though] it looks like it's going to be a good summer for tourism, [the numbers] are not high enough," Tzurel said. "There used to be 3 million tourists each year before the start of the second Intifada. In addition, whether we achieve our goal for the year also depends on what the winter [tourism] will be like."
The Tourism Ministry recently kicked off an $11m. campaign in North America, which accounts for well over a quarter of incoming tourism in Israel, with the goal of increasing the number of North American tourists to Israel by 100,000 in 2008.