Up, up and away

After last summer's war, the rebounding tourism industry is ready for take-off.

Turkish flight 224 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Turkish flight 224
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A year after the crash, Israel's tourism industry is airborne once again. It didn't look, 12 months ago, like takeoff could be achieved so quickly: At this moment last year, members of the tourism industry were mostly consumed with the possibility - seemingly a good one - that the Second Lebanon War had dealt another long-lasting, debilitating blow to the country's travel trade. In the first months after of the war, those concerns appeared well placed, with incoming tourism battered and Israelis themselves staying away from the areas hardest hit. But, as they say, what a difference a year makes. Though not instantaneous, the tourism industry's recovery since the war has proven complete and compelling, with 2007 shaping up to be the second best year ever in visitor numbers. As December approaches, projections place total visits for the year at 2.3 million, putting this year behind only 2000, when 2.41 million foreigners came here. Signs of the turnaround abound, most visible at the country's center but identifiable even at its farthest point south. At Eilat Airport, in recent years little more than a domestic airfield, the coming months will witness the start of a small but significant number of new weekly flights to Europe, whose residents are now returning in numbers not seen in almost a decade. Despite last summer's fighting, hotel revenues will rise sharply this year, having remained nearly constant between the first halves of last year and this and leaping during the summer season and fall holidays. The Tourism Ministry, which last summer faced the prospect of years of empty hotel rooms, has embarked on a new campaign, calling for the construction of more tourist accommodations and issuing regular distress signals about shortages in hotel space that could begin, it predicts, as soon as 2009. "From Eilat to the Golan Heights," occupancy rates are also rising in "very significant" numbers at the country's hostels, says Maoz Inon, who found the numbers sufficiently inspiring to become a founding partner two months ago in Israel Hostels (www.hostels-israel.com), the first organization focusing specifically on "independent travelers" in the country. The growth in this niche area is reflected, Inon says, by the wave of renovations and other investments currently taking place at hostels around the country. The change in fortunes can even be felt on-line, with Goisrael.com, the Tourism Ministry's Web site, receiving twice as many visitors in September as it did the same month the year before. (In-person visits rose almost as dramatically, with 86 percent more tourists arriving in September than in the parallel month in 2006.) Though the ministry's budget is dwarfed by those of regional tourism leaders Egypt and Turkey, it's doing what it can to keep the momentum going, increasing marketing efforts in North America and attempting to tap more deeply into potential visitor populations from Russia and the Far East. Large-scale Christian tourism has once again become a realistic goal for the ministry, with Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch discussing group pilgrimages with the head of tourism for the Vatican this summer and meeting his Palestinian counterpart, Khuloud Daibes, in Jerusalem last month, in part to discuss joint efforts at promoting visits to the area's holy sites and easing tourists' passage into Bethlehem. This fall, Aharonovitch met in South Korea with members of the country's largest church, hoping to encourage visits by a group that in 1996 held a 6,500-person conference in Jerusalem and could help to channel tens of thousands of Asian Christians to the country in the coming years. Goisrael.com has been or will be translated by year's end into Korean, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, a step intended to encourage the arrival of travelers from many of the world's most Christian nations. Interest in Israel emanates even from places unlikely to supply the country with camera-wielding hotel guests. Goisrael.com logged nearly four dozen hits from Afghanistan in September, while roughly 1,000 Iranians visit the Web site each month. BY LAND, BY SEA and by air - particularly by air - visitors are arriving in numbers almost inconceivable just a few years ago. Though the country is expected to remain behind 2000 in total visits, 2007 provided the busiest summer in Ben-Gurion Airport's history, with 2.4 million travelers (including Israelis) passing through on just under 14,000 flights. International traffic has remained high even after the summer, rising 28.6 percent in September over the same month the previous year. October brought more of the same - more passengers on more flights as part of what's on course to be the busiest year ever at Ben-Gurion. Though the airport processes just a fraction of the passengers arriving at international hubs in New York and London, Ben-Gurion boasts a distinction of a different type, in good years handling significantly more travelers - an estimated 9.5 million in 2007 - than there are residents of the country in which it's located. The airlines have taken notice, not that careful attention was needed. Statistics released by the Airports Authority last month show that business in the first nine months of 2007 was good - very good - for just about everyone, with scheduled carriers and charter airlines alike logging increases, many deep into the double digits, over the same period the previous year. The overall winner this year has unquestionably been Onur Air, the Turkish charter company, which now ranks behind only El Al in the number of passengers it brings here, a figure that skyrocketed 364% over the first three-quarters of 2006. Traffic has also soared among the traditional carriers, with Lufthansa retaining its lead over Continental Airlines, Turkish and British Airways. Taking what its Israel CEO Ofer Kish calls a "calculated risk," the German airline actually added capacity during the second intifada and is now being rewarded for the expansion, a move that took place when other airlines began sending smaller aircraft or canceling flights to Ben-Gurion. As it enters its 40th year of service to Tel Aviv, Lufthansa is now reaping the rewards of its loyalty, enjoying record traffic and planning to add daily nonstop service to Munich next year. The start of the new flights, intended for next summer, will require a reworking of the aviation agreement between Germany and Israel; Lufthansa officials expect negotiations to begin by the end of the year. Germany is hardly the only country with skies getting busier with traffic from Israel. After eliminating flights to Tel Aviv in 2001, Delta Airlines reinstated service to Ben-Gurion last year and in March will become the first airline to fly nonstop between Israel and two American cities. The carrier, which currently flies once daily to Atlanta, will start flights to New York's John F. Kennedy Airport in March. Flight options to France and England are also expanding, both in the number of flights and in the types of flights offered. Most notable among the new options has been the start of service this month by Thomson Fly, the low-cost carrier that offers nonstop flights to both London's Luton Airport and to Manchester several times weekly. Rumors that English carriers BMI and Virgin also had their eyes on Israel proved half-true; BMI has confirmed plans to start service to Ben-Gurion next year. A representative for Virgin said the airline was not currently considering the launch of flights to Tel Aviv. Competition and capacity are also growing among the long-established airlines. British Airways, which increased capacity on its Israel flights by 10% in 2006, is now being mimicked by Swiss Airlines, which will begin flying a wide-bodied Airbus 330 to Tel Aviv next March. The switch will raise Swiss Airlines' capacity by 22%, making Tel Aviv the most important non-European destination for the airline after New York. The heightened competition is leading to new services and benefits, particularly for the airlines' highly coveted business- and first-class travelers. With El Al, British Airways and Delta all boasting new or soon-to-open terminals and lounges overseas, an arms race of sorts is developing on flights to New York, with the top two carriers on the route - El Al and Continental - seeking to outdo each other in the options they offer. El Al achieved success earlier this year with its new "Pre-Flight Service from Home" program - so much, in fact, that it's now looking to expand it, offering more passengers the opportunity to pay an extra fee to check in for flights and send their luggage to the airport from home. Continental, meanwhile, now offers an even more high-flying option for business travelers, allowing Israelis, like their counterparts from Europe and India, to bypass normal passport checks at the airline's New Jersey hub before being delivered - via helicopter - to Manhattan. THE NEXT six months are shaping up to be a turbulent period for the airlines, less in the sky than on the ground. Oil prices continue to prove impervious to the principal law of flight - what goes up must come down - and the start of the "Open Skies" era next March will have a profound but hard-to-predict impact on airlines flying between the US and Europe. Under the terms of the new policy, European and American carriers can fly between any two destinations in either region, meaning that British Airways can start service between Rome and Miami, while American Airlines can carry passengers between Warsaw and Madrid. Though not a part of the Open Skies agreement, Israel is experiencing the effects of its own regulatory shake-up, with El Al, the former national carrier, now a private company receiving less protection from the government. Though still easily the largest carrier operating here - it delivers six times more passengers to Ben-Gurion than its nearest competitor - the airline is continuing to redefine its public image and will need to make strategic decisions about how best to deploy its 36-plane fleet. The company is considering adding flights to Tokyo, Shanghai or South America next year, says Rami Levy, El Al's vice president of commercial and industry affairs. Complaints inevitably remain, but members of the aviation industry sound generally content as they discuss the state of their field. A series of near-misses at Ben-Gurion Airport have attracted attention this year both at home and overseas, but industry workers, though they declined to be named, express confidence that deficiencies in the airport's safety and communications systems are being addressed. The Airports Authority, for its part, announced a three-year, NIS 550 million budget for safety upgrades in September, paving the way for improvements at Ben-Gurion and the country's other airports. AMONG THE airlines themselves, traditional carriers are keeping a watchful eye on Thomson Fly, which unlike its older counterparts has received subsidies from the government to start service to Tel Aviv. Shira Kaveh, a spokeswoman for the Tourism Ministry, wrote in an e-mail that her office "offers cooperation" to every charter airline "encouraging tourism to Israel," but she declined to comment on questions about why Thomson has received government funding during a growth period, particularly when traditional carriers didn't receive assistance even during the darkest sections of the intifada. Kaveh said reports that Thomson Fly had received $1 million in subsidies "don't reflect the reality," but she declined to provide a different figure. Despite the benefits granted their newest rival, local airline officials are aware that this is not a period of hardship, that after years of violence and the resulting plunge in tourism revenues, now is perhaps as good a time as ever to work in the travel industry. The arrival of low-cost carriers in Tel Aviv - once envisioned as the start of a new era in local aviation - is instead receiving a low-key response from the older airlines, with British Airways dropping economy class prices by 6% on London flights and El Al not changing a thing. The limited nature of the response is telling - and, it appears, will be sufficient for each of the companies involved. Though low-cost carriers represent another option for travelers, their arrival doesn't necessarily mean trouble for the traditional airlines - just witness the non-impact this year on Lufthansa after the 2006 start of flights to Germany on Hapag Fly, the first European budget carrier to offer service to Ben-Gurion. Though another round of violence could reverse this year's growth as quickly as it started, the Tourism industry currently expects 2.8 million foreigners to visit next year, a total that would make 2008 far and away the busiest year in the history of the industry. Even if the actual numbers fall short of that, the arrival of just 100,000 additional visitors would make 2008 a record breaker, and no doubt attract further attention - and more and larger planes - from new and established airlines. Israelis find themselves, then, in a situation that at first looks like a paradox: Despite the creation of more tickets for more seats on more airlines, airfares do not appear, according to officials from around the industry, likely to get cheaper. Because almost as soon as they appear, those seats are being purchased, both by foreigners and by Israelis who are flying more than ever before. During the tourism industry's strongest periods, 60% of Ben-Gurion's passengers arrive from outside the country, a proportion that has been nearly but not yet fully reached. Greater supply is getting canceled out by greater demand, meaning steady fares - but also busier flight schedules, additional flying options and a meaningful boost to the economy. Tickets aren't about to get cheaper, but after years spent off the list of international destinations, Israel can celebrate the fact that it's once again become one. Butting heads It's been the million-dollar question - well, the $99 question - ever since low-cost airline Thomson Fly announced the start of service to Tel Aviv in June: Is it really possible to fly between Israel and England for under $100? With the airline's initiation of flights between the two countries earlier this month, passengers are now learning the answer: Yes. And no. If you're not picky about the date of your flight, where you sit, the fact that you won't get a meal or extra charges for checking luggage - any luggage - then yes, it's possible to fly from Tel Aviv to London or Manchester for $99. If, however, you want to eat, bring more than one bag or sit next to a spouse or your child, it'll cost you more - as will any flight, regardless of the details, flying in the opposite direction. Thomson Fly, as the airline's Web site suggests, is a different kind of air carrier, "created in recognition of the changing needs" of travelers not satisfied with ticket prices on the company's traditional competitors. The announcement this summer that Thomson Fly would begin service to Ben-Gurion Airport generated a flurry of interest among local travelers and news media, as well as at British Airways, which subsequently dropped prices by 6 percent for its economy seats to London. The arrival of Thomson Fly - its maiden flight to Ben-Gurion landed November 1 - indeed represents a new option for airline passengers, though convenience-minded traditionalists may find themselves choosing to stick with the carrier's more experienced competitors. But among travelers for whom the bottom line is truly the bottom line, Thomson Fly represents a worthwhile new possibility. Recent trips to London on Thomson and BA underscored the differences between the two - both the advantages each offer and the drawbacks associated with the trip. In terms of the flying experience, British Airways remains unquestionably the superior option, offering bigger planes, better seating, more comprehensive entertainment options and an array of comforts and services - including meals, notably - that come with the price of your ticket. The airline's first class, I also learned, is a marvel of contemporary aviation - a passenger could spend a week up there before remembering the plane's eventually supposed to land. But first class, for most travelers, is not the issue, and even in its economy class British Airways offers an experience that's simply more enjoyable than a flight on its low-cost counterpart. (Which is not, to be fair, the point of Thomson Fly.) Arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport ahead of BA's daily afternoon flight to London, I passed an initial passport check and completed check-in in less than 15 minutes - a process shorter than the subsequent line to get through security. Once on board, BA economy passengers are met with amenities that don't exist on Thomson Fly, ranging from complimentary newspapers to wine and spirits served at no extra charge. For a round-trip economy ticket to London - which starts on British Airways for $555 - passengers gain access to 12 channels of movies and TV programming, as well as music and a wide variety of dining options. Passengers aren't likely to forget they're aboard a plane, but given the possibilities, it's about as good an economy class experience as you can hope for. Once on the other side - in England - passengers find themselves at London's Heathrow Airport, a hub of ground transportation options that includes frequent service by bus and train to London and other points around England. Though the airport has a less-than-stellar reputation among frequent fliers, passengers on my particular BA flight were processed quickly at passport control and waited only briefly for their luggage to arrive at the carousel. (More on baggage, as it relates to Thomson Fly, below.) THOMSON, MEANWHILE, offers few of those conveniences - or not, at least, without some additional fees. But if a traveler's goal is simply to fill a backpack and grab the cheapest possible ticket to England, Ben-Gurion's newest arrival is indeed an appealing option. In contrast to BA, which flies between London and Tel Aviv twice a day each way, Thomson travels between Israel and England a total of 12 times a week, offering a flight each way every Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday between Ben-Gurion and both London and Manchester. A visit to the "Farefinder" page of the company's Web site reveals that flights are indeed available, taxes and fares included, for just $99 one-way - but only on certain dates and only if that "one-way" means traveling west. Return trips on Thomson Fly are always - literally always - more expensive than flights out of Tel Aviv, with taxes and other fees automatically adding $104.62 to any Israel-bound flight. If you can find a "promo" deal on-line, it's possible to fly round-trip on Thomson Fly for $217, but most return trips are over $300 - less, no doubt, than the cheapest flights on British Airways and El Al, but not as much less as if both flights were in fact $99. (It's also not hard to find return tickets on Thomson for over $400, depending on the dates you fly and the services you request as part of your ticket.) The $99 figure will also seem somewhat deceptive to those accustomed to airfare that includes meals and the right to bring luggage. Meals on Thomson Fly range from "standard" to gluten-free, but they each cost $12, except for kosher meals, which add $30 to the cost of your flight. Meals must also be ordered ahead of time. Sandwiches and a range of junk food are available onboard, for a charge, without preordering, with prices ranging from $1.50 for a ginger ale to $11 for a sandwich, beer and Mars Bar combo. On Thomson Fly, onboard entertainment works like food - you may be better off bringing your own. Unlike in BA's economy class, there are no complimentary newspapers here, just an in-flight magazine promoting an "upgrade" ($10) for access to radio channels and movies. Whereas economy passengers on British Airways get their own mini-TV screens, Thomson Fly travelers watch their movie on shared monitors above the aisle. Pity the passengers who paid to watch movies on my Thomson Fly trips: Offerings on the way to London included Wild Hogs, while Transformers theoretically provided the diversions on the way back. Still, as Thomson Fly officials would legitimately point out, there's nothing stopping travelers from bringing their own books, iPods and mini-DVD players, as well as their own sandwiches, sodas and bags of chips. For most money-conscious travelers, the cost-cutting issue on Thomson Fly trips relates more to luggage than to food. Thomson passengers receive a "free generous hand luggage allowance" of up to 10 kilograms with their ticket, but bringing any additional baggage adds to the cost of your flight, in the form of added fares tacked on to the price of your ticket. Though passengers can bring a total of 25 kilograms of baggage on their journey (including a carry-on bag), they must pay for each item they check, at $20 per piece. (In other words, the cost of checking a single bag to London can be a fifth as expensive as sending a human.) While Thomson's check-in desk operated smoothly at Luton Airport on the day I flew - I made it through the line and had my ticket to Tel Aviv in roughly 20 minutes - the same cannot yet be said for the airline's check-in area at Ben-Gurion, where many of the passengers clearly weren't familiar with the baggage restrictions and proved none too pleased upon learning about the additional charges. (BA passengers flying economy to London are allowed 23 kilograms of luggage as part of their ticket.) Thomson passengers paying baggage fees at the airport will pay double than had they paid for them online or at a call center. The can do so with a credit card rather than cash - but, as they say, it'll cost ya ($10, to be precise). Given that my flight took off on only the second day of Thomson's operations, it's probably only fair to cut the airline some slack - though I couldn't help but notice that it took nearly an hour, rather than 15 minutes, to complete check-in and get my ticket. The airline works better at London's Luton Airport, with Thomson Fly matching the BA check-in desk in waiting time and providing a clean, pleasant waiting area before flights. If you're departing for Luton from London, the airport isn't a bad alternative to Heathrow, reachable by rail in half an hour from the King's Cross and Blackfriars railway stations, stations also served by the Tube. (Once at the airport's railway station, a 10-minute bus ride takes travelers to the terminal.) Given the difference in morning flight times - BA takes off at 8:30 a.m. and Thomson at 10:15 - travelers starting in London can actually save themselves a bit of the wretched early morning transit experience if they're flying with Thomson. The logistical challenges are more complicated on arrival at Luton, however, with fewer trains running because of the hour (past 9 p.m.), and destinations outside London often requiring a bus trip into the capital simply in order to switch to another bus or train. After landing 45 minutes late at Luton on my Thomson flight, I had to wait till almost 2 a.m. before reaching Oxford by bus, though I may have saved myself 30 minutes - and paid significantly more - had I taken the train. Other than issuing the 6% drop in economy fares, British Airways hasn't responded to Thomson's arrival, with company officials credibly explaining that, although their flight paths overlap, the two carriers are actually targeting different customers. Trips on both airlines seemed to bolster the claim, with BA reaching out to passengers prioritizing comfort, convenience and international connections as they fly. But for passengers with flexible travel dates and an understanding of the services considered "extras" by Thomson Fly, that airline is also a noteworthy new option. "Viva Tel Aviv," Thomson Fly says in advertisements now appearing in England. For Israelis seeking maximum options as they consider the comfort, cost and logistics of their trips, it's a welcome sentiment, and one they may adapt for their own use as they take to the skies over England. Viva the new competition.