Where have all the tourists gone? They’re right here

Despite war, terror, and worldwide economic turmoil, visitors are still making their way to Israel — in droves, says the Tourism Ministry’s spokesperson

As part of its marketing campaign this month to promote winter sun vacations in Eilat, the Israeli Tourism Ministry in London is advertising the Red Sea resort on the iconic black taxis in the capital. (Sherbet London)
As part of its marketing campaign this month to promote winter sun vacations in Eilat, the Israeli Tourism Ministry in London is advertising the Red Sea resort on the iconic black taxis in the capital. (Sherbet London)

Rumors of the demise of the creature known as “the tourist” are greatly exaggerated, according to Anat Aronson, the “face” of Israel’s Tourism Ministry. In her capacity as official ministry spokesperson, Aronson hears all the time about how terrorism, BDS, world economic problems and the like are conspiring to kill tourism to Israel.

“I understand that there is a perception that tourists aren’t coming, but you can’t argue with the facts,” she told The Times of Israel. “And the facts are the number of ‘heads’ passing through Ben Gurion Airport.

“According to those numbers, tourism in 2015 was more or less what it was in 2014 — about 3% lower — and most of that was due to a falloff in tourism from Russia and Eastern Europe, due to severe economic problems in those regions. Tourism from the United States in 2015 was actually up over the year previously,” constituting 20% of all visitors to Israel — the largest single supplier of visitors.

Last week, the ministry held its 22nd annual IMTM (International Mediterranean Tourism Market) event, where everything and anything tourist-related was discussed. Israeli hotels and tour agencies showed off their wares, promoting packages and travel ideas to tourism officials and industry players from Europe, Asia, and the US. Also participating were travel agents and government officials from countries in the region, seeking to partner with Israel in order to develop stronger tourism ties and attract more people to the region.

Among the foreign groups attending were several tour agency owners from Turkey, who are hoping that the thawing relations between the two countries will convince Israelis to once again take their summer vacations in the “all included” resort playgrounds of Antalya in southern Turkey.

According to the Tourism Ministry figures, 2015 wasn’t too bad a year at all for tourism. After a very successful previous year, 2014 was on its way to setting all sorts of records for incoming tourism, but the turmoil of Operation Protective Edge kiboshed that. By October and November of last year, however, tourism had recovered — to the point that there was a slight increase overall in the number of incoming tourists in October 2015 as compared to October 2013 and 2012. Altogether, 3.1 million tourists arrived in Israel in 2015, compared to 3.3 million in 2014 and 3.5 million in 2013.

The biggest drop in incoming tourism was from Russia and Eastern Europe, and that, said Aronson, was due to economic problems in the region, including a devaluation of the ruble. To bring those tourists back, the ministry has embarked on a new NIS 8-million ($2.2-million) advertising campaign to attract Russian tourists, “and we’ve created popularly priced vacation packages — priced at $350 for a 3-4 night stay on a B&B basis — for them. In addition, tourism officials in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea have prepared a range of benefits and discounts for tourists staying in their area, including free tours, and discounts to tourist sites and restaurants. And, we’ve recently approved dozens of new flights from Russia to Eilat,” added Aronson.

In order to keep prices down, the ministry is offering tour operators a financial incentive of €45 per passenger for tourists who fly into Eilat, she added.

Those incentives come out of the ministry’s marketing budget — as did part of the cost for the widely reported incentive that attendees of the Oscars got in their goody bag, with each getting a free, first-class trip to Israel, said to be worth about $55,000.

While it sounds excessive, one has to keep in mind the benefits Israel could derive from the positive PR it gets from such celebrity trips. “We’re doing this in conjunction with ExploreIsrael.com, a new travel site that is picking up part of the tab, but the ministry dedicates a significant amount of money to trips like this,” Aronson added. “We host celebrities, sports stars, bloggers, journalists, and many others — about 3,000 people annually — in order to show them what Israel is all about. We find these hosted trips to be among the best of our advertising campaigns for Israel, because nearly all the people we bring are very impressed with Israel, and many decide to come back on their own, bringing their friends and telling others of their positive experiences.”

And those hosted tourists are free to go wherever they want. “Contrary to the claims by the BDS forces and other anti-Israel elements, we do not seek to ‘whitewash’ anything. Anyone who visits is free to go wherever they want, whether it’s central Tel Aviv, the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem, or the security fence. We give them the tools to do what they want. We are very proud of all aspects of Israel, and we have nothing to hide. Just the opposite — and people appreciate our freedom of movement and our forthrightness in discussing all issues,” claimed Aronson.

BDS, she added, has not been a factor in tourism, as far as the ministry can tell — and neither has the fear of terror attacks; again, she said “the numbers are what tell the tale, and we see that economic issues affect tourism much more than politics and security.” Regarding the former, those who were not planning to visit Israel because of politics weren’t going to anyway, while those amenable to coming here — for sun and fun, religious pilgrimages, business, or any other reason — are not affected by BDS, Aronson said.

As far as security issues are concerned, the spokesperson went on, “travelers know they can face security issues anywhere in the world these days — including in the US, Asia, or Europe — so they are not intimidated by the news they hear about the security situation here.”

If there has been any falloff, it’s been in the number of hotel stays — which were down by 10% last year. “But that was more than made up by other forms of hosting, including AirBnB, apartment sharing, etc. And we find that foreign tourists are continuing to register for hotels, as well.”

The one place that has seen a sharp drop in hotel stays is Jerusalem — and that, said Aronson, is due to the reluctance of Israelis to visit the city, in the wake of recent terror attacks. “Israelis continue to vacation, but not in Jerusalem, and that has been of concern to local businesses. The government has recently instituted some programs to help increase internal tourism and to help out businesses that have been suffering because of the lower numbers of visitors to the city.”

The Tourism Ministry, stressed Aronson, “is here to help out in whatever way we can. Tourism is one of our most important industries, and I believe the ministry has done right by the visitors to the country, as well as by the businesses that are dependent on those visitors — and we will continue to be there for them.”

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