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Jerusalem hotels bet on local guests this Sukkot — but don’t expect a bargain

Giving up on foreign tourists for the approaching holiday season, high-end establishments seek to woo domestic tourists to spend their vacation shekels

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Workers prepare the King David Hotel sukkah on October 3, 2017 (Courtesy Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Workers prepare the King David Hotel sukkah on October 3, 2017 (Courtesy Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

The flower-festooned sukkahs in the atrium and entrance of Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria seat are ready to seat a hoped-for 500 people this Sukkot, during the festival of booths that begins September 20. None of the guests, however, will be foreign tourists.

“We were fully booked for the holiday this year,” said Avner On, general manager of the Jerusalem Waldorf Astoria. “When families come from abroad for Sukkot, they don’t come for two nights, they come for the whole holiday.”

But On and his staff now no longer believe those Sukkot tourists will show up, with coronavirus Delta variant cases soaring in Israel. Some of the bookings haven’t canceled quite yet but On is pretty sure they won’t make it, and this changes the scope of one of his most important seasons.

Now, in August, the Waldorf is full, but with Israeli tourists rather than the usual crowds of European and American visitors. This situation is typical for Israeli hotels this summer, as most foreign tourists can’t enter Israel amid the pandemic, nor will they likely be able to during the High Holiday season in September.

So the luxury hotel changed its rates and minimum lengths of stay for the holiday season, hoping that Israeli tourists will take advantage of the opportunity to spend part of the holiday at the Waldorf.

The high-end hotel is now offering a two-night minimum and a NIS 2,500 ($772) price tag per night, including breakfast, as well as reduced prices on meals.

“Everything is reduced to the level that the Israeli market can accommodate,” said On. “It’s not cheap, don’t misunderstand me, but it’s not as high as it was before.”

The indoor atrium of Jerusalem’s Waldorf Astoria Hotel is turned into a flower festooned sukkah (Courtesy Waldorf Astoria)

But there won’t be any reduced prices at the nearby King David Hotel, Mamilla or David Citadel hotels.

“We’re still not in desperate mode,” said Ronen Nissenbaum, CEO of the Dan Hotels, a chain that includes the historic King David among its 21 hotels. “We’d rather have fewer rooms at the right rate to make it feasible. Our strategy is to maintain the integrity of our rates, to deliver amazing service and food even if it means our volume will be lower.”

The costs of running a hotel during the holiday season remain high, so what the Dan chain has done is drop the minimum stay to two, three and four nights at some hotels as cancellations have rolled in, he said.

“We have seen a significant number of cancellations, mostly for Sukkot,” said Nissenbaum. “The tourists are slowly giving up, those that booked a year or two ago in the hopes that September would be their first time coming to Israel since the coronavirus started.”

The  waiting list has been opened for the King David, while the Eilat Dan and Dan Caesarea always tend to be fully booked with Israeli guests over Sukkot.

(Two of the Dan hotels, the Dan Panorama Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, are currently serving as quarantine hotels for new immigrants and foreign workers arriving in the country, and have been used in that capacity since the start of the pandemic.)

Jerusalem’s David Citadel hotel will have only one out of the usual three sukkah huts in September 2021 (Courtesy David Citadel)

Also not lowering their prices are the Mamilla or David Citadel hotels, neighbors to the King David and Waldorf Astoria in Jerusalem.

“We’re all turning to the locals now,” said Katerina Brokhes, vice president of sales and marketing at Mamilla and David Citadel. “It’s been that way for an entire year, since July 2020.”

Both hotels were closed during the 2020 fall lockdown and reopened one week before Passover 2021. While Mamilla has always had a considerable Israeli clientele, David Citadel has a very strong presence in the US market, said Brokhes, with repeat customers who stay two to three weeks.

“Now the situation is completely different,” she said. “We’ll have families, but for two nights. We’ll have one sukkah, not three.”

But like other high-end hotels, while the minimum number of nights will be lowered, along with waived cancellation policies, rates will remain the same.

“It’s the same tastes, facilities and standards,” said Brokhes.

The Mamilla Rooftop restaurant sukkah will be open during the 2021 holiday season, but catering mostly to Israelis rather than foreign tourists (Courtesy Mamilla Hotel)

Budget hotel chain Ibis, with two hotels in Jerusalem, has been surviving for the last year and a half with mostly Israeli tourists, and plans on continuing doing what it can to draw local guests.

This year both hotels will build bigger sukkahs to accommodate Israeli guests who prefer to eat outdoors during the seven-day holiday, said general manager Aharon Bernstein.

Ibis Israel has made other changes due to COVID-19, switching from an 80% foreign tourist occupancy to 80% Israeli clientele.

Ibis Red, which opened in 2021, added an event hall for Israelis along with other activities and Friday night dinners, said Bernstein.

“It’s been in great demand since the day we opened it,” said Bernstein, adding that prices aren’t changing at the Ibis chain, since their prices are already fair.

“We’re full now,” said Bernstein. “The question is what will be after the summer. Our issue is September and October.”

The pandemic even saw the launch of a hotel chain, the Jacob, which opened three months ago having used the time during the coronavirus lockdowns to carry out renovations on five existing hotels.

“We were readying ourselves for that moment to open,” said Ohad Klempert, marketing manager for Jacob Hotels. “We’re not going to have foreign tourists right now, so we’re trying to do what we can for the Israeli tourist.”

With five hotels in Tiberias, Nahariya, Hadera, Tel Aviv and Jerusalem in the spring, Jacob Hotels is hoping to draw Israelis to its mix of urban and resort accommodations around the country.

The Waldorf’s On is fairly sure that Israelis will spend their money on hotel stays this holiday season, given that travel abroad requires a quarantine once they return home.

“It’s a long holiday and they’ll need to get out, so they’ll take two nights in Jerusalem,” he said.

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