Some visitors come to walk in the historical footsteps of biblical figures, others come to enjoy the thriving culinary and nightlife scenes, and many come to soak up the sun on the sandy beaches along the Mediterranean Sea.
No matter what the motivation, more tourists than ever before are opting to make Israel their vacation destination, and records are being shattered year after year.
Already by mid-November, the number of incoming tourists in 2018 surpassed last year’s record of 3.6 million, and the Tourism Ministry expects entries to exceed four million next week. While the global increase in tourism this year stands at 4%, Israel has enjoyed a 17% increase in visitors, and direct revenue from tourism this year stands at over NIS 24 billion.
Welcoming four million visitors to Israel in a single year, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said Wednesday, “is the realization of a decades-old dream of all those involved in the Israel tourism industry. Within two years, we have grown incoming tourism by 1.1 million, an increase of 38%, which is rare, even in international terms.”
The secret behind Israel’s golden age of tourism seemingly lies in a winning combination of aviation reform and incentives, NIS 350 million worth of global marketing efforts, and old-fashioned word of mouth.
The Open Skies Agreement reached between the European Union and Israel in March 2012 has symbolized the transformation of Israel’s tourism relations with its near neighbors in recent years, enabling all airlines in the EU to operate direct flights to Israel from any EU location, and Israeli airlines to fly to any EU destination.
In addition to the many short-haul flights arriving at, and departing from, Ben-Gurion Airport every day, the ministry has recently launched a range of subsidies for European airlines flying to Eilat. The ministry reimburses airlines flying to Eilat €60 per passenger during the winter season, with a 10% bonus for airlines flying more than 14 weekly flights, including at least two new flights this season.
These efforts have paid dividends. As recently as 2015, there were only four weekly flights between Israel and Europe from Eilat. This winter alone, some 165,000 tourists are expected to make the resort town their vacation destination, as they take advantage of some 57 weekly flights. The new Ramon Airport, located 18 km. north of Eilat and due to open next year, will enable larger planes and more flights to serve the South.
Turning to Ben-Gurion Airport, the ministry offers airlines and tour operators annual incentives worth $250,000 per weekly flight, up to a total of three, for flights originating in new locations with significant potential for incoming tourism. Airlines and operators must spend the additional finances on marketing Israel as a new destination.
Sichuan Airlines (Chengdu), Hainan (Guangzhou), Air India (New Delhi), LATAM (Sao Paolo), as well as budget airlines, including Ryanair, EasyJet, Wizz Air and LOT Polish Airlines, have all benefited from the ministry’s Ben-Gurion Airport flight incentives this year.
WHILE ISRAEL continues to welcome tourists from an expanding list of countries, the United States – and its large Christian population – remains by far the largest source of tourism, with approximately 813,000 Americans staying overnight in Israel this year. Add day visitors arriving on cruises or crossing the border from Jordan and Egypt, and the number already exceeds one million visitors.
“The Ministry of Tourism has ramped up a lot of its activities in the US this year,” Eyal Carlin, acting director of the ministry’s Overseas Department, told The Jerusalem Post. “The biggest aspect is our investment in media campaigns.”
This year, the ministry has invested NIS 30m. ($7.96m.) in digital marketing campaigns, and a further NIS 60m. ($15.92m.) in television and transportation campaigns. Advertisements promoting Jerusalem and Tel Aviv have been screened a staggering 15,000 times on big screens in the last two months at New York’s Port Authority Bus Terminal.
“We have seen an increase of about 15% in US tourism since last year,” said Carlin. “Our 2019 target is to continue the momentum and reach one million tourists from the US.”
The ministry is now getting ready to launch its US marketing campaign for next year, working closely with online travel agents and shifting the timing of its marketing push based on recent research showing that the majority of tourists book their spring and summer vacations in the months of January and February.
Israel is also gearing up to host the American Society of Travel Agents’ global convention in November 2019, a major US tourism event attracting up to 400 agents and tour operators, which will significantly boost awareness of what Israel has to offer.
“In the past, Israel was the place where people were concerned about safety, but people are now talking less and less about that,” said Carlin. “We want to continue the momentum so that Israel becomes one of the top outbound destinations for US travelers.”
IN ADDITION to marketing efforts made by the ministry and the Open Skies Agreement, award-winning licensed tour guide Samuel Green of MyIsraeliGuide.com also attributes the growth in tourism to the relatively calm security situation, businessmen extending their stays for tourism purposes, and even the success of Israeli chefs abroad.
Catering to the growing interest in the Israeli food scene, which is now known for much more than falafel and pita, the Israel School of Tourism recently launched a culinary tourism course for tour guides.
“Israel is an amazing place to visit – it’s very hard not to enjoy your time here. Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea do much of the marketing work themselves,” Green told the Post, but cautioned that Israel must improve its infrastructure to deal with the major increase in visitors.
“There is a big issue with a shortage of hotel rooms, with places for people to park buses and tourism vehicles, and sometimes it has been a real struggle to move along the major Christian pilgrimage routes,” he said.
In November, the ministry welcomed global hoteliers, entrepreneurs and senior representatives from multinational tourism chains to the inaugural Israel Hotel Investment Summit, all eager to take advantage of the current shortage of tourist accommodation.
In an extraordinary short-term fix to provide accommodation for the tens of thousands of tourists set to descend on Tel Aviv for the Eurovision Song Contest in May, the municipality will be bringing a 500-room Italian cruise ship to the shores of the city and renting out rooms on board to guests.
“The ministry has done a fantastic job in promoting tourism to Israel, but I think there’s a lot to catch up on the product side,” Gal Mor, co-founder of Abraham Hostels and Tours, told the Post.
“There is a huge need for more accommodation, but right now the delivery is mostly from the direction of Airbnb and the shared economy. It’s an important segment of the tourism product, but it also has negative side effects.”
Abraham Hostels, known for its colorful and welcoming accommodation that encourages travelers to come together and connect with local culture, is now planning to open a second hostel in Jerusalem and a first in Eilat, in addition to its three existing hostels in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Nazareth.
“On one hand, Eilat has been a huge success for the Ministry of Tourism. On the other hand, the product in Eilat is very outdated,” Mor said. “The success of bringing such a large amount of tourists may cause a backlash if the product doesn’t catch up soon.”
This year, the ministry allocated NIS 145m. in grants to entrepreneurs seeking to establish and expand hotels in various cities across the country, assisting them to build 3,289 hotel rooms.
According to global hotel industry consultant STR, more than 7,500 hotel rooms are currently in the pipeline across the country, including over 2,000 rooms in Tel Aviv – a 26.2% increase in the city’s existing supply.
Besides efforts to solve the room shortage, a bilateral labor agreement was finalized earlier this month enabling the arrival of up to 1,000 Filipino workers to reduce a severe staff shortage also affecting the Israeli hotel industry. The agreement follows a similar accord permitting the employment of Jordanian workers in hotels in the Eilat area.
By filling vacant positions, the ministry hopes to reduce vacation costs and further advance tourism as an engine for national economic growth.
In addition to the major successes realized through flight incentives and multimillion-shekel marketing campaigns, the digital evolution of old-fashioned word-of-mouth marketing through social media and travel websites will likely ensure that the more satisfied visitors there are, the more will follow in their footsteps.
As long as the country continues to wisely manage unprecedented levels of incoming tourism, ensuring that infrastructure catches up and grows in tandem with demand, Israel’s golden age of tourism looks set to continue breaking records.
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