Dead Sea makes Pessah comeback [pg. 16]

The Dead Sea proved to be the hot destination for holiday travelers this Pessah, benefiting from the 20 percent rise in tourism the country saw over the festival season. "We had a wonderfully busy Pessah, with both tourists and locals taking advantage of the country's facilities," said tour operator Mark Feldman, managing director of Zion Tours. "The Dead Sea was huge and the big surprise this year as both tourists and Israelis chose it over Eilat." Zvika Karpel, general manager of Hebrew travel Web site Gulliver, noted that five Dead Sea hotels had been booked out by religious groups for the holiday as opposed to just one in 2005, raising demand at the remaining hotels in the area. "Whereas previously the Dead Sea would get the leftovers from the Eilat traffic, this year saw a reverse in the trend," Karpel said. While the Dead Sea was the most noted beneficiary of the general rise in tourism, there also was an increase in activity throughout the country. Ze'ev Sarig, managing director of Ben-Gurion Airport reported that 400,000 passengers passed through the airport during the weeks preceding and during the festival, 20% more than last year and 34% over the 2004 Pessah period. The Tourism Ministry also reported a rise in traffic to Eilat Airport and noted that some 30 flights flew direct from Europe to Eilat, carrying approximately 6,000 passengers over Pessah. Karpel, who deals solely with Israeli bookings, said Eilat remained a popular destination among the locals and that the north was also very busy this year. Still reeling from the effects of a series of terror attacks in the Sinai over the last 18 months and the Government travel warnings in place there, Karpel noted that only one-third of last year's numbers made the traditional exodus to the Sinai during Pessah 2006. He added that Turkey was again the most popular overseas destination for Israelis and the Israel Airports Authority (IAA) reported that this was reflected in the outgoing flights there. "We had a 15% increase in airplane movement at Ben-Gurion airport over Pessah and a number of airlines increased their capacity in time for the summer season," Ben-Gurion's Sarig said. Passenger traffic increased 20%. "The flight itinerary showed Turkey as the most popular route, followed by former Soviet Union countries, and then London, Rome, Paris and the US." He reported that approximately one-third of passengers passing through Terminal-3 were tourists. Earlier this month, the Tourism Ministry said it expected an influx of 90,000 tourists over Pessah, also showing a 20% rise over last year's figures. A spokesman for the ministry said it was too soon to tell if its forecasts were met. And while the Pessah statistics will serve as a benchmark for a continued influx of tourists through the summer, industry players were satisfied that the country was well prepared to accommodate the rising numbers. "Everything worked well this Pessah, from the airport to the taxis, hotels and tourist sites," Zion Tours' Feldman said. "It seems the country put its best face forward in leaving a good impression over Pessah and Easter."