Israel’s tourism industry, which took a hard hit last year following Operation Cast Lead, is beginning to bounce back. The Israel Hotel Association released first-quarter figures on Sunday that showed a 17 percent rise in total nightly hotel stays over the first quarter of 2009. According to association figures, 4.2 million nightly stays were registered in the first three months of 2010. The figures were split between nightly stays by foreign tourists, which rose by 25%, and local tourists, which rose by 11%.Average occupancy rates also rose during the first quarter from 40% in 2009 to 56% in 2010. The highest occupancy rates were registered in the Dead Sea (67%), Tel Aviv (64%) and Jerusalem (61%).Jerusalem hotels registered the highest numbers of foreign tourists, with 738,000 nightly stays, followed by Tel Aviv, with 447,000, Eilat with 257,000, the Dead Sea with 104,000 and Tiberias with 163,000.Local tourists meanwhile, preferred Eilat and the Dead Sea, with 60% of Israelis who spent nights at hotels opting for one of the two southern destinations.Aside from Netanya and Herzliya, whose hotels saw slight drops in nightly stays by Israelis, all the other tourist destinations saw increases in nightly stays by Israelis over 2009.“We derive a lot of satisfaction from the increase in local tourism. The Israeli tourist chooses ‘blue and white’ vacations despite the fierce competition from foreign destinations both near and far, said Israel Hotel Association director-general Shmuel Zuriel.“Israeli hotels are the natural homes of the Israeli tourists, and understand better than any competitor how to cater to their desires,” he said. “We salute the Israeli tourist.” While the figures show an increase form 2009, they are still lower thatthe record year of 2008, which had 7% more nightly stays during thefirst three months of the year.“The momentum is positive. The successful cooperation between theMinistry of Tourism and the private sector through the tourismindustry’s marketing forum produced the good results of the firstquarter, leading to tens of millions of dollars in income and thegeneration of thousands of new jobs,” Zuriel said. “This is a golden opportunity for the state. Any profit-seekingbusiness would take advantage of the upturn and make an immediatedecision to increase advertising and marketing budgets in order toleverage the momentum and reduce the gap from 2008, and maybe evensurpass it by 3-5%, before the end of the year.” Zuriel called on the Finance Ministry to boost the Tourism Ministry’s marketing budget by NIS 30 million.