It was a record year for tourism to Israel, with tourists overwhelmingly giving the visit positive reviews. While it is a remarkable accomplishment, there is much that can be improved
The year 2017 will be remembered as an all-time record year for tourism to Israel, increasing by an astounding 25 percent compared to 2016.
While the Arabs, most of the members of the European Union and the Boycott, Divest and Sanction (BDS) movement, are still grinding their teeth in angry frustration over Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem, 3.6 million tourists came to see Israel and its capital for themselves last year.
The majority of the visitors came from the United States (700,000 tourists), Russia (307,000), France (284,000), Germany (202,000), and the UK, which brought 185,000 tourists to Israel. Other important countries included Ukraine (137,000 tourists), China (105,000), Italy (93,000), Poland (85,000), and Canada (75,000).
The increase in tourism from China was 46 percent compared to 2016 and a 139 percent increase compared to 2015. In March 2016, Israel and China signed 13 bilateral agreements, one of them a 10-year multi-visit visa agreement in order to facilitate business and tourist travel between Israel and China. The only other countries that China has such an arrangement with are the U.S. and Canada.
In 2016, flights between China and Israel increased after China’s Hainan Airlines began operating three weekly flights between Beijing and Tel Aviv. There is a huge untapped market for tourism in China, with Chinese travel abroad booming. One can find Chinese tourists in even the smallest European outpost.
“To say that not much has been done to bring Chinese tourists to Israel is not true. It would be more correct to say that almost nothing has been done,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin lamented back in 2016. That has been changed now, but Israel is still benefiting from a very small piece of the pie that is Chinese tourism.
During Benjamin Netanyahu’s recent visit to India, the two countries discussed the possibility that Air India, which will soon begin direct flights between Delhi and Ben Gurion Airport, will fly over Saudi Arabia on its way to Israel and back, in order to shorten flight time by two hours and in this way increase the number of tourists between Israel and India.
Air India operated flights to Israel about 20 years ago, but they were stopped, as they were not considered economically feasible. Currently, only El Al operates flights between the two countries. The new Air India route is very likely to lead to an increase in Indian tourism to Israel.
The majority of the tourists were Christians, who constituted 54 percent of arrivals (25 percent visited as pilgrims), whereas only 21.7 percent were Jewish visitors. The remaining tourists were of other religions and non-affiliated.
The record tourism to Israel is a remarkable accomplishment, given the enormity of the external factors that are continually working against the Jewish state. These factors include repeated calls for boycotts, a hostile world press, which portrays the country in ludicrous ways that have little, sometimes nothing, to do with the actual reality inside the country, and the geopolitical realities surrounding Israel’s borders.
Given that Israel has overcome all of these impressive obstacles, the sky is the limit. As a tourist destination, Israel has an enormous variety of experiences on offer to both the young and the old in the form of incredible historic sites, beautiful nature, a vibrant and fascinating cultural scene, a vast array of entertainment possibilities and an irresistible culinary scene.
Furthermore, it is a very child friendly country, where children are welcome everywhere from restaurants to museums. It is no surprise then that 91% of the tourists polled ranked their visit to Israel as “very good,” or “excellent.”
However, the biggest obstacle to an even bigger influx of tourists is internal. Vacationing in Israel is still expensive with many hotels demanding high prices for comparatively low standards. People who vacation in Israel make a point of wanting to come to Israel, but if the pricing were more competitive, Israel could become the natural choice for the many who simply look for a week of sun and good food during the cold winter months. As it is, many of them instead go on an all-inclusive to Hurghada in Egypt or Bulgaria that are much cheaper.
The tourism industry in Israel will have to streamline itself, offer lower prices and better services, if it wants to really compete. Many Israelis cannot afford to vacation in Israel, because of the prohibitive hotel and accommodation prices, so they travel abroad instead. That is an absurd situation. Cheaper flight tickets to and from Israel would also help tourism, even though there are far more options today than there used to be in the form of low-price air travel.
Since the BDS movement set out to destroy Israel in 2005, Israel has only thrived and grown. In 2005, Israel had 1.9 million tourists coming to visit. Twelve years later that figure has nearly doubled. Similarly, in 2005 the Israeli GDP was 20.000 USD. Today Israel’s GDP is 44.000 USD. Perhaps BDS should be renamed the Bring, Develop and Sky-is-the-limit movement.
Judith Bergman is a columnist and political analyst
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