What is over-tourism?

Tourism is one of Israel’s major sources of income, with over 23 billion shekels contributed to the Israeli economy in 2019.

 JEWS PRAY at the Western Wall on Jerusalem Day. The Kotel is the most visited site in Israel, according to the Tourism Ministry. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
JEWS PRAY at the Western Wall on Jerusalem Day. The Kotel is the most visited site in Israel, according to the Tourism Ministry.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)

When I hear the term “Over-tourism,” I immediately think of the impact that millions of tourists have had on what were once “Clean” Canada, “Spotless” Sweden, and “Immaculate” Iceland. In other words, their effect on environmental impact. Yet the word over-tourism is not confined to nature. Other “over-tourism” issues include traffic problems, overcrowded streets, and overpricing. True, tourism helps build an economy – but it also adds to environmental and urban problems. Life is complicated.

Here in Israel, we will likely hear few complaints about over-tourism this summer, despite the massive numbers of tourists that are already beginning to arrive. After two years of COVID-19 regulations and hardly any tourism to speak of, most people seem to feel, “the more, the better.” Families of those working in the tourist industry have genuinely suffered – enough is enough.

The impact of tourist dollars is wider than we realize. Tourism is one of Israel’s major sources of income, with over 23 billion shekels contributed to the Israeli economy in 2019, the last pre-COVID numbers we have. Tourism does a lot for the host country.

Tourism motivates countries to improve their infrastructure in line with international norms. This leads to new highways, parks, leisure facilities, etc. In Israel and elsewhere, it is used to fund archaeological digs and preserve historical sites.

Tourism helps local small businesses sell their wares. In a relatively small country like Israel (Israel is 100th in the world in terms of population), many products would be impossible to sustain based solely on the local population. Similarly, tourism attracts paying guests to music, dance and other cultural performances.

Impartance of the Israeli tourism industry

Tourism is not just about short-term cash flow. It is crucial to a country’s economic diversification.

In Israel, there is one other main advantage of tourism: It is about battling antisemitism and anti-Zionism. It is about tourists seeing with their own eyes how small the country it is, thus giving context to our legitimate security concerns. It is about seeing ancient synagogues and mikvehs, “proving” our history in the land. It is about seeing successful Arab Israelis in the malls and cafés, thus exposing the lie to the “Apartheid State” canard.

It is about visiting Yad Vashem – the second most visited site in the country, after the Western Wall – thus countering the evils of Holocaust denial.

 BIRTHRIGHT PARTICIPANTS gather in Jerusalem for a mega-event in 2017. (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90) BIRTHRIGHT PARTICIPANTS gather in Jerusalem for a mega-event in 2017. (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

It is also about helping keep Diaspora Jews connect to Israel through Reform, Conservative and Orthodox teen tours, Birthright trips, introductory and more advanced Olami and Chabad educational tours for college students and young professionals, Federation missions, etc. In other words, tourism in Israel is ideological not just economic.

While the State of Israel certainly cannot determine who decides to vacation here, government policies do have a significant effect on who will decide to vacation here. Are we allowing hotels to be built quickly, thus increasing the supply and lowering the prices? Will we reduce taxes, making it easy for low-cost airlines to land in Israel, thus making tourism more affordable to the average person? Will Israel encourage Airbnb and other private platforms to develop? Will we finally allow Uber to enter the market?

THE LARGER point is that just like countries have goals in every area of endeavor and then implement policies to get us “there,” so, too, theoretically they have goals in terms of tourism, and then apply policies to help get us “there.” With the pandemic and Israel’s recent political instability, it has been difficult for governments to have clarity on something relatively low on the list of priorities like tourism.

There is one policy that governments have all shared, though: reducing the price of hotel stays in the country. Hotels in Israel are among the most expensive in the West. I recently asked the Ministry of Tourism for an update on the subject. Lydia Weitzman, foreign press adviser to the Ministry of Tourism, responded:

“The price of hotel accommodation in Israel is governed by a number of factors, including among others the fact that demand significantly outstrips supply. It should be noted that not all hotels have returned to full operations due to lack of staff, thereby reducing accommodation supply.

“Despite the fact that hotel pricing is set by the free market in which the government does not interfere, the ministry is working to increase hotel supply by easing the path for entrepreneurs to build new hotels and convert existing buildings into hotels; by working to reduce bureaucracy related to hotels; [and] incentivizing more affordable accommodation options including camping, caravaning and hostels.”

As the ministry responded above, they do recognize the problem. It is hard not to. But what actual progress has been made? How many new hotels are scheduled to go up? How many buildings are being fast-tracked to rezoning for hotels?

From this layman’s point of view, it doesn’t seem like a lot has been done. We need many more new hotels just to keep pace with increasing worldwide tourism. We’re not doing that. And we need even more hotels to get prices down, competitive with the West. We’re certainly not doing that.

In truth, I look forward to the time when we’ll need to discuss over-tourism in Israel. That isn’t the issue. Quite the opposite: Pre-COVID, Egypt received 13 million tourists a year. Turkey received over 16 million. Israel received about 4.5 million, only slightly more than Cyprus. Considering the historical and religious sites in the country, as well as the beaches, Israel should be receiving far more tourists than Cyprus, don’t you think?

So why aren’t we? Once, the issue was perceived danger. One rarely hears this anymore. For most people, the main issue seems to be cost. So what is the government actually doing to get costs down?

The writer is a bestselling author and the co-founder of Mosaica Press. He is also a licensed tour guide. Neither he nor anyone he knows operates an Airbnb.