Did tourism in Jerusalem recover over the High Holy Days?

During the months of September and October, the streets of Jerusalem were full of visitors – tourists from abroad, pilgrims and families of Israelis who returned to visit the capital.

 MAMILLA MALL: Empty during lockdown (pictured Dec. 2020), bustling on chagim.  (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
MAMILLA MALL: Empty during lockdown (pictured Dec. 2020), bustling on chagim.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

The municipality estimates that over two million people came to Jerusalem to visit the religious, cultural and tourist sites during the month of Tishrei. This shows a massive increase from the pandemic restrictions last year, when merely 300,000 residents of Israel, only, visited the city.

There is no doubt that the municipality and other parties dealing with the branding of the city for domestic and foreign tourism achieved the best results for their efforts and returned the city to its position as the number one tourist site in the country. During the months of September and October, the streets of Jerusalem were full of visitors – tourists from abroad, pilgrims and families of Israelis who returned to visit the capital. Aside from the official sites, the cafes, restaurants and, of course, the hotels also saw a significant improvement compared to the same period in the past two years.

The big question is whether this is a revival of business in the city or a temporary improvement mainly related to the holiday period, a time in which the holy city receives many visitors anyway.

A total revival for Jerusalem or just a regular holiday boom?

In addition to this, the question of security – that individual acts of terrorism may turn into a wave that will completely change the situation – has become a cause of great concern. However, despite the concern, there has been no evidence of cancellations.

In the city center, it was again possible to see long lines of customers waiting for a table to become available in the restaurants and cafes just like in the good old days, mostly on Shlomzion Hamalka Street and especially in the Mamilla complex. But in the market alleys leading to the Western Wall in the Old City and despite the massive number of visitors, joy is on hold.

THERE IS virtually no traffic in places that are usually packed with tourists. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)THERE IS virtually no traffic in places that are usually packed with tourists. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

Omar, who owns a jewelry store, says that visitors, especially the religious and ultra-Orthodox families who came to the city to celebrate Sukkot, looked at the goods displayed in the shop window, but very few purchased items. “Also, the Christian pilgrims who returned to visit here did create a more pleasant atmosphere compared to the emptiness and sadness of the last two years, but these are not rich people and jewelry is not the most urgent thing for them. My neighbors, who sell souvenirs, did better business.”

Within the Christian Quarter and at the edge of the Muslim Quarter, several supermarkets have opened in recent years that make sure to offer kosher goods, including strictly kosher products. The owner of one of the supermarkets explained that for him, it was the most logical thing to do. “The religious visitors are the majority who pass through here, on their way to the Western Wall. They won’t buy anything without a kosher stamp, so obviously I put this stuff in. Without it, I would not have survived this period.”

“The religious visitors are the majority who pass through here, on their way to the Western Wall. They won’t buy anything without a kosher stamp, so obviously I put this stuff in. Without it, I would not have survived this period.”

Old City supermarket owner

Masses of Jerusalem residents and visitors from all over the country enjoyed the events, and the municipality is proud of the fact that despite the large number of visitors, they managed to maintain the cleanliness of the city during Tishrei.

Among the main sites in the city visited is the Western Wall, which was visited by about a million people during Tishrei and about 150,000 people during the Sukkot holiday. Simhat Beit Hashoevah and the Second Hakafot on Simhat Torah, held in synagogues, public spaces and, of course, at the Western Wall, attracted close to half a million people, according to Safra Square figures.

The mayor’s sukkah hosted 100,000 people during the week of Sukkot. In addition to city residents and visitors from dozens of cities in Israel and around the world, the mayor’s sukkah hosted events, shows and activities for all sectors of the population, religious and secular.

The International Jerusalem March brought 50,000 people to spend time in the city, about 5,000 of whom were tourists from 70 countries. As well, the largest conference of incoming tourism since the coronavirus can be seen as a sign of the return of tourism to Israel and Jerusalem.

HOWEVER, THIS prosperity has not touched all sides of the city’s economy. A decrease of 6% to 6.5% was recorded in the Malha Mall during the High Holy Days. The Alrov Mall in Mamilla is showing signs of recovery for the second month in a row and has recorded a 26% increase in holiday income. However, despite the increase, the income rate per square meter is still low and stands at NIS 65 per square meter compared to the national average of NIS 70 per square meter.

Despite this, it seems that Jerusalem trading sites enjoyed an increase in income, but less than expected. The Eid al-Fitr Holy Day in the Arab sector was expected to give an additional boost to the local economy and moderate the decrease in sales but did not actually occur due to the fact that the holiday fell on the second day of Rosh Hashanah, a day when most shopping centers were closed.

Tourist sites in the Old City, such as the Tower of David Museum, the Promenade of the Walls and free events that took place at the foot of the walls between the New Gate and the Nablus Gate attracted an estimated 300,000 more visitors. As well, the market of the Four Species attracted 40,00 buyers and visitors during four days of activity, between Yom Kippur and Sukkot eve.

In addition to the tourist sites, there were also events with many participants and festivals, such as a series of Slihot (special traditional prayers before Yom Kippur) events in Safra Square, Beit Ha’am and Binyenei Ha’uma in which 20,000 people participated, as well as a series of Slihot events at the Sultan’s Pool in which 20,000 people participated.

An estimated 20,000 people visited various festivals during Sukkot, such as the Ein Kerem Festival and the Derech Beit Lehem Festival. It is estimated that up to 100,000 people visited urban nature sites, such as the Gazelle Valley and various parks. 

Hotel occupancy in Jerusalem was full during Sukkot. According to municipality data, there was an increase of about 144% in the total number of overnight stays in the month of September (Rosh Hashanah) compared to that period in 2021. The reason for the increase is due to the overall exit from the corona crisis and tourists coming from abroad.

During the Sukkot holidays, the municipality increased the activity of its cleaning vehicles and added more sanitation workers than usual in crowded places and at the main events. In order to establish a festive atmosphere, the municipality installed decorative lighting and suspended all infrastructure works during the holidays.

Security patrols in parks and public spaces were set to increase the sense of personal security and sukkah safety. The district commander, Doron Turgeman, held a press briefing a day before the holidays and said that 47 attacks had been thwarted by police since the beginning of the year. In addition, he said that he signed orders to exclude Jews and Muslims from the Temple Mount, as thousands of police officers were on duty to secure the Tishrei holidays.

The satisfaction level at Safra Square is high; and these days, when the city’s leadership enters the year of the mayoral elections, the return to normalcy is, for the political echelon, the critical time to prepare for the next test. ❖