Why isn’t Israel a tourist mecca?


The year 2009 will likely end with a grand total of roughly 2.5 million tourist entries into Israel – a figure that, to the dismay of hotel owners and members of the tourism industry, is very similar to those recorded every year in the past decade. In other words, tourism to Israel has reached a plateau.

A few months ago, while Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was attempting to assemble a coalition, Israel’s Hotel Association (IHA) delivered a presentation that opened with the plea, “Mr. Prime Minister, there is a hidden treasure in Israel. This is a resource that is far from being developed, of value and potential, a resource that can increase growth and employment – tourism!”

But Netanyahu’s term has not improved tourism, despite an increase in advertising budgets abroad and Israel’s large number of religious, archaeological and natural,tourist attractions.

One reason for this is that tourists generally seek peaceful locales. Hence, wars and terror attacks keep tourists wondering whether Israel will be safe at the time of their planned vacation, and many forego the visit.

Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics illustrate the damage done by regional instability to the tourism industry in Israel. In 1999 more than 2.5 million tourists visited Israel from abroad, and in the first nine months of 2000 there were 2.6 million entries.

However, in October of 2000, upon the breakout of the second Intifada and local Arab riots, tourism in Israel came to a total halt. In 2001, the number of entries was a paltry 1.2 million. As the instability spilled over into 2002, the number of entries slid further, and just 882,000 people visited Israel that year.

Ami Etgar, CEO of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association (IITOA), says that while security issues pose a serious obstacle for the tourism industry, other factors also make it difficult for large groups to visit Israel.

“In Israel there are almost no international hotel chains because entrepreneurs from abroad don’t like to invest in (the country),” he says. Etgar says that a few peaceful years must go by in order to attract investors. “But mostly (entrepreneurs) need help in removing bureaucratic barriers,” he says.

Another obstacle for incoming tourism is the Interior Ministry, Etgar says. “A few weeks ago a group of 15 businessmen was supposed to arrive here from Turkey,” he recounts. “Their travel agent wanted to secure them visas for Israel, but the Interior Ministry demanded a NIS 50,000 ($13,200) deposit.

Other financial aspect also poses problems for large groups – namely the relatively high prices charged by hotels. Because many groups also tour Jordan and Egypt during their visit, they prefer to spend the night in these countries, where hospitality comes cheaper.

“In 1987 1.5 million tourists came to Israel, and 8.3 million hotel stays were recorded,” Etgar says. “In 2009 there will be maybe 2.5 million tourists arriving, but the number of hotel stays won’t surpass 8 million. This says a lot.”