The country's tourism industry is hungrily awaiting one of its favorite annual events: the departure of hundreds of thousands of Israelis and the arrival, in their place, of hundreds of thousands of visitors.
Following one of the busiest summer travel seasons in years, industry officials expect the momentum to carry over into the fall holiday season, with analysts at the Issta Travel Agency predicting that more than 300,000 Israelis will exit the country during the fall holidays. Of those, half are expected to leave during Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, while the rest will save their vacation days for Succot.
The increased demand for plane tickets has pushed the cost of air travel up by 15 percent, Issta officials report, though they add that overall prices for vacation packages have risen more slowly, and are now on average 5% above what they were a year ago.
El Al, for its part, is looking forward to a 12% increase in traffic over the 2007 fall holidays, calling demand for tickets to London and Paris "stable" and noting a substantial increase in bookings to Hong Kong. The airline plans to fly some 30,000 passengers to New York during the holiday season, and has increased the number of customers it can take to North America (by 6%), Western Europe (6%) and the Far East (20%) thanks to the addition this summer of two new 777s to the airline's fleet.
In a nod to Rosh Hashana tradition, El Al business and first class passengers will be offered baked apples as part of their onboard meals during September and October. Those in economy class will receive apples and honey.
700 Korean Christians to make Israel pilgrimage
The official cancellation of a mass pilgrimage to Israel isn't preventing hundreds of Korean Christians from visiting the country. Some 700 South Korean believers have pledged to fly to Israel despite a decision by their movement's leadership to call off a group visit following the Taliban's kidnapping last month of Korean Christian aid workers in Afghanistan.
In a visit to Seoul earlier this month, Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich spoke at a meeting of the group, the Yoido Full Gospel Church, speaking about Israel's Christian sites and inviting members of the movement to visit the country. Delivered before an in-person audience of 10,000, the speech was made available to the church's 750,000 worldwide members, who attend 280 satellite churches in 60 countries around the world. A 1996 convention held by the group in Israel drew 6,500 participants from overseas.
Travel to Israel by members of the South Korean church is expected to grow significantly next April, when Korean Airlines will begin nonstop flights between Seoul and Tel Aviv. The airline's decision to reactivate the route after a 10-year lapse was announced during Aharonovich's visit.
Promoting tourism in face of terror
Among the visitors arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport this week is Sri Lankan Tourism Minister Milinda Moragoda, who landed in Tel Aviv Sunday for a tour of the country and meetings with officials in the Tourism Ministry. Moragoda's visit, the first by a Sri Lankan tourism minister, focused on the promotion of tourism to a country which, like his own, is regularly faced by terrorism and other crises.
"Israel's tourism industry serves as a model of successfully coping with and quickly recovering from crisis situations," Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich said last week, "and I'm happy to contribute knowledge in this field to countries in similar situations."
Independent, like Israel, since 1948, Moragoda's homeland has been badly damaged by its own terrorism problem, with Tamil minority separatists responsible for a long string of attacks since the early 1980s. In addition, some 31,000 people lost their lives in Sri Lanka in the December 2004 tsunami, a natural disaster that left 443,000 citizens of the country homeless and caused an estimated $1.5 billion in damage.
After traveling to Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and other popular tourist sites, Moragoda will spend his visit studying how Israel has marketed itself overseas, as well as the policies it's crafted to keep the tourism industry afloat financially during periods of violence.
Some 2,124 Sri Lankan tourists visited Israel last year, down slightly from 2005. The two countries don't have a formal tourism agreement, but Tourism Ministry officials said work was underway on a draft agreement that would allow the ministry to strengthen ties with its Sri Lankan counterpart.
Aharonovich and Moragoda are scheduled to meet in Jerusalem on Wednesday.