Where are Israelis going on vacation?

With Turkey scratched off the list, there are still a multitude of hot spots around the globe, plenty of cruises and the option to backpack.

Israelis at airport 521 (photo credit: REUTERS)
Israelis at airport 521
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Trying to interview Israelis in the third-floor departures area at Ben-Gurion International Airport isn’t easy.
“No time, Duty Free, the plane will leave without us,” says a gray-haired gent in a windbreaker rushing past with his friend.
I do manage to waylay two sets of travelers, though. Both are catching a flight for the Bulgarian coastal resort town of Burgas.
I hear Burgas is “hot” (as in “popular”), I tell Natasha from Jerusalem, traveling with her husband Igor.
“No, it’s raining,” she says. “We didn’t know.”
Why Burgas? “I injured my knee, I don’t feel like running around, and I’ve had enough of the beaches in this country,” says Natasha, 46. “It’s cheap to buy a ticket now, so we’ll lie on the beach in Burgas for a week.”
Yona Sabba, a retired Education Ministry employee, is traveling with a group of about 150 Ashkelon Municipality workers to Burgas. “Because of the security situation, we wanted to find someplace safe,” says Sabba, 52. “We can’t go to Turkey anymore, we wouldn’t go to Morocco like we did before, and they say Burgas is a beach town, like Eilat. They have a casino, discotheques, clubs.”
Despite the rain, Burgas is indeed hot this summer as a destination for Israeli tourists. So is its sister beach resort, Varna.
“They’re a substitute for Turkey. Travel to Turkey hasn’t just gone down, it’s dead. There isn’t a single flight leaving for Turkey this summer,” says Gilad Brovinsky, deputy general manager of Disenhaus Tours, one of Israel’s two largest travel agencies (the other being Issta).
But ruptured relations with Turkey are not going to stop Israelis from getting out of this hot, crowded little country and seeing the world. If they find Turkey suddenly hostile and they don’t want to spend too much money, they’ll instead go to the Greek isles, to Crete, Cyprus, Rhodes.
They’ll go a little further afield to Slovakia and Croatia. If they have yet more money to spend, they’ll try northern Italy, Germany’s Black Forest or Holland.
These are the hot spots for Israelis this summer, says Brovinsky, along with the traditional draws (again, for those with more cash on hand) – London, Paris, the US.
For Israelis, the point is to go, and they do, and they will be going like crazy again this summer.
“Israelis are the biggest travelers in the world,” notes Haifa University Sociology Prof. Oz Almog, an expert on Israeli popular culture.
From year to year, about one in every six Israelis travels overseas, but because of the drop in the value of the dollar, this summer, the departures area at Ben-Gurion promises to be even more mobbed than usual.
“You can’t travel overseas spontaneously anymore; you have to book flights and hotels a few months in advance or everything’s going to be taken. If you want to travel in July, you have to book in March. This is the way it’s been for the last three years or so,” says a travel agent who doesn’t want his name or company mentioned.
The front-page headline in Yediot Aharonot on Thursday of last week read, “Thanks to the dollar: Vacation on the cheap.”
Brovinsky agrees. “The dollar price of tickets has gone up, partly because of the rise in fuel costs, but the value of the dollar in shekels has gone down even more, so for Israelis the actual price of airline tickets has gone down substantially,” he says. “There are some very good opportunities for vacation packages this month, some amazing prices.”
The anonymous travel agent, however, says this is an illusion.
“People see on TV that flights are cheap, they read it in the newspapers and on the Internet, and the travel companies advertise these cheap flights – but it’s not true. Flights to Spain, to South America, to everywhere are very expensive.
People think they can fly to Europe for $200, and when you tell them they can’t, they don’t understand, they saw the ads.”
According to the agent, “a travel agency will do a promotion, a special price for week-long packages [flights and hotels] to Barcelona, let’s say, and somebody sees the ad and calls up to buy tickets, and I check it out – and the tickets are already sold. It’s a come-on – the companies advertise ridiculously low prices – but there are only 20 tickets available at that price, and they sell out in five minutes.
After they’re gone, you pay the regular price. But go explain that to the guy and his wife who are expecting the bargain of their lives.”
BESIDES THE scratching of Turkey off the Israeli traveler’s map, the new thing in overseas tourism, says Brovinsky, is the cruise.
“For the last two or three years, the popularity of cruises has been going up by dozens of percentage points from year to year. People always thought of cruises as only for the rich, but now they’ve discovered that it’s not so expensive. What attracts people besides the relaxation, the sunbathing, is that everything is included, you pay one price and you have unlimited use of the 24-hour restaurant, the casino, the shows, ice skating, golfing, wave pool,” he says.
“The other attraction is that you’re not on the ship all the time, you’re stopping in different port cities,” Brovinsky continues. “So you’ll be sailing for a day, then you’ll dock for a day and you can run around the city and the markets and shops. You get to go to many cities, and Israelis are going on cruises in the Mediterranean, to the Caribbean, to Central America. They’re going like crazy.”
Almog says the cruise plays perfectly to several idiosyncracies of the Israeli traveler.
“Israelis like to stick to one another, and that’s what you’ve got on a cruise. Also, Israelis are mad about food, and these cruises are one big fress from morning till night. It appeals mainly to the middle and lowermiddle classes, not so much, or not anymore so much, to the wealthy and worldly. For people who go on a cruise, traveling becomes so easy – it’s fully guided, you don’t need to find hotels. Plus, it gives the taste of variety, of stopping here and stopping there and stopping in a... series of places. And, of course, it takes away the problem of finding kosher food, which is why they’re so popular with religious people, including haredim,” says Almog.
“On a cruise, Israelis are going to be [with] people like themselves – it’s like you’re in a club,” he adds.
“One other thing that serves the particular traveling style of Israelis – it’s perfect for bringing the kids along, which Israelis do on vacations that a lot of other nationalities don’t,” continues Almog. “On a cruise the kids are looked after by the ‘entertainment crew,’ and the parents don’t have to worry.”
And, he notes, “On a cruise ship, the kids can’t get lost.”
AT THE opposite end of the spectrum is the backpacking vacation in the Third World, which wasn’t invented by Israelis but certainly seems to have been. The tiyul hagadol, the big trip, began in the early 1980s as the mandatory, six-month-to-a-year-long head-clearing experience after the army. Now Israelis are reprising it, though for shorter periods, well into their 20s and early 30s.
At the Lametayel (For the Traveler) branch in Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Center, a young man in a scraggly beard gives a lecture on traveling in New Zealand to about a dozen listeners. On the notice board are people looking for travel partners to every spot on the globe.
“2 girls, 22, flying to Africa in August, seek worthwhile volunteer opportunities in Malawi/Tanzania…” “I’m looking for 3 or 4 partners, in 20s or 30s, for trip to Iceland…” Standing at the travel books section, Adi Berco is looking at books on Guatemala and Mexico, where she’s going with her husband on a honeymoon for six weeks in September. A law student at Tel Aviv University, she met her husband, an Intel employee, in India after the army.
“I went to India for three months; he’d already been in South America for a year,” said Berco, 24.
She says they chose Guatemala because their friends said it was less commercialized and expensive than Costa Rica. The grapevine among Israeli backpackers is something phenomenal. It’s like Wall Street; Lametayel is like the New York Stock Exchange, the key physical manifestation of the phenomenon, but the information flows online and by word of mouth constantly.
After the army, the destinations of choice are still India and South America.
“People don’t consider it safe to go backpacking in Africa. Europe is more for when you’re older and settled and you want to stay in hotels,” says Berco.
The Israeli backpacking scene has gone the way of sushi – it started as an exotic thing for nonconformists, and now it’s for everyone.
“In the end, you end up going where your friends went,” says Berco. “Kind of a herd mentality.”
Gur Braslavi, who is reading a book on India, is doing things a little differently.
“I was privileged to grow up in a solid background, and I’ve been traveling all over the world since I was young. In August I’m going to northern India to escape the heat and humidity of Israel and August. I’ll be staying in hotels,” says Braslavi, 34, a Tel Avivian who “owns several companies.”
The big tiyul used to be a post-army rite of passage for Ashkenazim alone. “Now it’s common for Sephardim, too. You’re even beginning to see Israeli Arabs doing it when they’re young – not many, but some,” says Almog.
In the departures area at Ben-Gurion, one of the Ashkelon Municipality workers flying to Burgas says he decided on going after “I checked Gulliver.co.il to see what was available. This was the best deal.”
Because of Gulliver and other travel websites that allow customers to book their vacations online, travel agencies “are leaving this world,” says Almog. Even Brovinsky of Disenhaus says that because information and services on tourism are so readily accessible online, the “value chain of the travel industry is coming apart. Now wholesalers are becoming retailers, and vice versa.”
What this means for Israeli travel habits is that people are becoming more autonomous, less dependent on what travel agents tell them and what the “trend” is, and more able to strike out on their own. The map for Israeli tourists is opening up.
“Israelis used to prefer organized tours because they were unsure of themselves, of their ability to travel in a foreign country, in a foreign language, on their own,” says Almog. “Now they’ve traveled abroad once, twice, a few times, and they’re confident they can find their way. Israelis used to be so detached from the rest of the world. Now we’re about the most globalized nation there is.”