More hotel rooms expected as tourists keep coming

Number of foreign tourists has risen from 1.2 million in 2001 to 3.45 million in 2010.

Herods Vitalis spa hotel 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Herods Vitalis spa hotel 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Thousands more hotel rooms, city-based festivals, beefed-up tourist attractions and maybe even another international airport - all these are planned over the next few years as Israel looks to maintain a major uptick in tourism. A record 3.45 million travelers came to Israel in 2010 - 25 percent more than in 2009 -- and the trend is steady despite regional unrest keeping visitors from neighboring countries.
Several ambitious strategies were revealed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Minister of Tourism Stas Misezhnikov at the inaugural International Tourism Conference held in Jerusalem at the end of March. Netanyahu declared his intention to attract enough tourists each year to match Israel's population figure of more than seven million.
The list of priority areas earmarked for tourism dollars is expanding to include Eilat, the Negev and the Beit Shean Valley as well as the Lower Galilee, an area with special significance for Christian tourists.
In fact, said Netanyahu, "we are looking to work with Christian communities to highlight biblical attractions and develop direct flight paths to the Galilee."
Of the 3,100 new hotel rooms expected to be ready by the end of this year, 660 will be in cities near the Sea of Galilee, such as Tiberias. About one-third of them will be built in Jerusalem, and 440 others in the northern Negev and Tel Aviv areas. In addition, the Tourism Ministry will invest NIS 30 million to upgrade, expand and convert nine youth hostels around the country to accommodate general tourists.
Tel Aviv really is the New York of the Middle East
Always attractive to tourists, the cities of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are getting more attention from the Tourism Ministry as well as local government agencies.
Tel Aviv has seen great success with its City Break marketing campaign which began seven years ago in European markets. The sandy cosmopolitan city appeared at third place on the Lonely Planet travel guide's list of the world's top 10 cities for 2011 and was named one of National Geographic magazine's top 10 beach cities.
"Now it is one of the capitals of tourism in the world -- better than London, rivaling even New York," according to Eli Cohen, head of marketing strategy, service and corporate responsibility for Bank Hapoalim.
Cohen said the Tel Aviv municipality has invested heavily in infrastructural improvements for the benefit of tourists, and that Jerusalem is embarking on a similar venture under Mayor Nir Barkat. "Maybe we can promote ‘Holy Break to Jerusalem' tours after there are enough hotel rooms," Cohen added.
A luxury Ritz Carlton will open on the Tel Aviv coast within two years, said Kathleen Matthews, a vice president of Marriott International. Another is planned to straddle the border between the new and old parts of the city.
Jerusalem: When you have the right product, people will buy it
Marriott is scouting out prospective sites in Jerusalem, which boasts chain hotels such as Leonardo and Dan, exclusive hotels such as the King David and Mamilla, and boutique hotels and B&Bs situated in areas off the main streets.
Meanwhile, before its expanded hotel room goal is reached, the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA) is banking on targeted events, such as the recent marathon and the upcoming Opera Festival to draw international tourists, says Ilanit Melchior, tourism director for the JDA.
"With the Israel Hotel Association and the Jerusalem Hotel Association, it's part of our strategy to position Jerusalem as a global tourism destination for cultural activities," she says. "We already have 1,100 packages sold for the Opera Festival and we had 1,000 foreign visitors for the marathon. When you have the right product, people will buy it."
Museum directors from New York, Amsterdam, Chicago and St. Petersburg joined Israel Museum director James Snyder in a conference session exploring cultural institutions and events as catalysts for tourism. The Israel Museum has welcomed nearly 600,000 visitors since unveiling its NIS 350 million facelift last July.
"Jerusalem was already branded 3,000 years ago as the world's spiritual city," said Misezhnikov, "but now we have expanded into the niche of cultural tourism."
Surveys show that 80% of first-time tourists to Israel wish to visit Jerusalem, and the mayor has expressed his dream to attract 10 million annual tourists by 2015. Foreigners apparently aren't scratching Jerusalem off their lists even in the wake of a terrorist bomb that killed a British woman and wounded 50 Israelis just a day before the conference, just outside the meeting venue.
"We certainly think and hope peace will come eventually, but the tourism industry realizes we don't have to wait for a peace agreement," said Cohen. "Over the last five years, Israel -- and particularly Jerusalem -- has gotten onto the international tourism map. We've opened the skies; flights from Europe are cheaper and there are more airlines flying here."
He strongly advocates building a second international airport, situated in Eilat. It would not only serve tourists coming to Israel's Red Sea resort but also South African travelers using Israel as a convenient hub to and from Europe.
Fast facts
• The number of tourists in Israel has risen from 1.2 million in 2001 to 3.45 million in 2010.• The tourism industry employs some 96,000 people and is anticipated to add 15,000 jobs in 2011 -- a 16% increase over 2009 levels. One-third of Israeli workers are employed in the hotel industry.• Hotel development is on the rise, with 3,100 guest rooms expected to be added in 2011 and thousands more in subsequent years.• The Tourism Ministry budget for 2011 is more than NIS 900 million, a significant portion of which supports the hotel industry. In 2010, the ministry approved grants totaling about NIS 875 million to hotel construction/expansion, while in 2011 the total budget for such investments is anticipated to be NIS 1,500 million.• The Jerusalem Development Authority's tourism budget grew 800%, to nearly NIS 25 million, between 2010 and 2011.• According to Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association, the number of foreign visitors taking trips exclusively to Israel rose 10 percent in February despite regional unrest.