Are more tourists visiting Israel? Depends who you ask

The Ministry of Tourism says the number of tourists to Israel is rising but it does not include day-trippers.

Tel Aviv beach in the summer. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Tel Aviv beach in the summer.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Is the number of tourists to Israel increasing annually? It depends on whom you ask.
According to Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, the number of foreign tourists continues to increase and will likely surpass the all-time high this year.
In 2013, a record 2.96 million tourists stayed overnight in Israel, according to the Tourism Ministry. Fewer visitors came in 2014 due to the twomonth Gaza war, with 2.92 million tourist visits, and 2015 saw tourism fall further to 2.79 million visitors. But in 2016, the numbers began to rebound to 2.9 million.
Yet neither Levin nor the Tourism Ministry are counting day-trippers – tourists who disembark from a cruise ship or who visit Jerusalem for one day from neighboring Jordan and Egypt without staying overnight in the country.
“Most of those day-arrivals are traveling to the holy places, places in the Old City of Jerusalem with limited capacity,” Levin told The Jerusalem Post in his office on Monday. “What happens is that there are huge queues, they visit, go back, board the ship and leave. It’s not like people who are staying in a hotel and eating here. It’s incomparable completely to real tourism.”
The traditional metric that most tourist ministries use worldwide tends to include day-trippers and look at the gross number of tourists. That shows a year-by-year decline, with a record 3.5 million tourists in 2013, falling to 3.25 million in 2014, 3.1 million in 2015, and 3.07 million in 2016, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
“You saw a few years ago, nobody will come here when there are missiles,” Levin said, referring to the 2014 Gaza war. “But I do think that we built a much more solid base, that our ability to get back to the bigger numbers will take much shorter time.”
It may be more accurate to exclude day-trippers from the tally, Levin said, because the economic benefits they provide may be limited. But it is possible that the Tourism Ministry wants a different baseline in order to show that the number of tourists is growing yearby- year, not declining.
January through August 2017 saw 2.26 million tourists enter Israel – excluding day-trippers – an increase of 24% from January through August 2016. That lends credence to Levin’s claim that the ministry is aggressively expanding tourism and setting this year to overtake 2013 as a record. These 2017 tourists have already contributed some $3.4 billion to the local economy.
Levin touted the increase so far this year to a change in Israel’s marketing plan, away from targeting Christian pilgrims and Diaspora Jews and toward branding the locale as a beach vacation.
“In the past, Israel used to market itself only as a place for pilgrimage,” Levin said.
“Things were quite grayish, like people are coming to suffer a bit next to God before they’re going to die, something that you have to do once in your lifetime.” Today, the ministry is changing its advertising to highlight secular and carnival- like Tel Aviv.
To expand Israeli tourism, Levin is also focusing on the lucrative Chinese market, as it offers a reservoir of hundreds of millions of middle-class tourists.
Almost triple the number of Chinese tourists will likely visit the country in 2017 compared to two years ago, with the expected number jumping to 110,000 from 40,000. Part of the rise can be attributed to direct Tel Aviv-Shanghai flights from Hainan Province starting this year. For Levin, expanding flight connections is a priority, seen by the many model planes perched on his office desk.
When asked, Levin did not specify how the ministry would help Israeli hotels and restaurants cope with the next possible conflict, either with Hamas in Gaza or with Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria.