By the Numbers

"Light around the Bend" - Roman amphitheater at Beit Guvrin

There’s been plenty of coverage, of late, about the latest Israeli tourism numbers in 2009. And anytime there is a drop in the number of tourists from the previous year, it will be at least somewhat worrisome to people who make their living (or hope to down the road) within the industry.

At the same time, however, there seems to be a lot of good and/or hopeful news in the figures as well. That, and the fact that I am still two years away from fully depending on this industry for my income, give me reason to remain my typically optimistic self.

So let’s examine some of the numbers, as well as a number of trends and changes in the Israeli tourism industry.

(Please note: I am only linking to articles once, though data from them or quotes may pop up later in the post again.)

It is true that the 2.7 million visitors Israel welcomed last year marks a drop of approximately 11% from the previous year. However, it is worth noting that it remains the second best tourism year on record, better than all but record-breaking 2008. And that in a year that was plagued by the worst global depression in decades, and one that started with Israel engaged in a high-profile war/operation in the Gaza Strip. Other tourist-dependent countries around the globe did not fare nearly as well.

“We’re thrilled with this result,” says Arie Sommer, Israel tourism commissioner for North and South America, “because while tourism to many countries dropped catastrophically in 2009, it underscores Israel’s extraordinary viability as a tourist destination despite the worst recession in 70 years.”

In terms of specifics, the United States still sent the most tourists to Israel, despite how hard the economic crisis hit that country. 550,000 tourists came from there (21% of all tourists), with Russia’s 400,000 (15% of tourists) ranking second. Russia is a spot that Israeli tourism authorities are looking at heavily, since tourists from there tend to spend more money on average. Nearly half the tourists were first-time visitors.

Another interesting tidbit, which I plan to discuss in another blog post, is that 54% of incoming visitors described themselves as Christian, and only 39% were Jews. 31% of tourists said they were coming on “pilgrimage.”

Also significant is the fact that the tourism numbers went up as they year went on. Tourism was down 25% in January and February, during Operation Cast Lead, down 18% in the period from March to June, and was only down 2% from July through November.

After July, one-day visitors (often from cruise ship stops) actually increased to record levels of 50,000 per month. Similarly, June through August showed an average of 162,000 tourists entering Israel per month. In September to November, that figure increased to 181,000.

Perhaps even more striking, in terms of the gradual improvement over the year, is the fact that this past month (December 2009) was record-breaking for any December in Israel’s history. the 225,000 visitors represented an 11% increase over the same month in 2008.

Still, looking at the past decade as a whole, there has not been a marked increase in tourism to Israel. Though the numbers they quote are clearly a bit off for 2009, the Israel Hotels Association still has a valid point in claiming the past decade was one of tourist stagnation for the country. Furthermore, the average length of a tourist’s stay in Israel dropped from 10 nights in the beginning of the 2000s to only 9 nights in 2009.

As I previously quoted in this post, even Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov recognizes and points out the lack of improvement over the past ten years.

Thus it is heartening to see Misezhnikov seemingly very active in trying to change the way Israel relates to the tourist industry. Every time he speaks now, he repeats his stated goals: one million more foreign tourists over the next three years, amounting to 4 million in 2012.

According to Misezhnikov, the boost in numbers will garner NIS 4.5 billion in income and create 40,000 new jobs, especially in Jerusalem and the periphery…. “For every 100,000 tourists, 4,000 jobs are created and NIS 450 million are invested in the Israeli economy.”

The desired/projected increase calls for attracting 5 million tourists by 2015 and 6.5 million by 2020.

The Ministry’s plan calls for a number of actions to increase these tourist numbers. For starters, they want to focus on “Dahat” tourism — a Hebrew acronym for the words “dat,” “historia” and “tarbut,” or religion, history and culture. This is the central core of what Israel can offer, since it has no real competitive edge in the realms of traditional resort/leisure tourism. The focus will be on marketing Israel to Christians and Jews from countries with appropriate populations, including the U.S., Canada, Russia, much of Western and Northern Europe, and Latin America. Thus, Israel will be branded as “The Holy Land, with Jerusalem at its heart.”

Jerusalem’s 2010 budget also includes an increase in spending on the tourism sector. The city will increase spending on tourism from 3 to 8 million NIS, a 266% increase. It will also draw an additional NIS 10 million from the Ministry of Tourism, that will be managed by the Jerusalem Development Authority.

Back to the Ministry’s plans, another major push will be in improved customer service/experience, starting before a tourist’s arrival in Israel, and extending through his or her stay here. Plans include a call center, better website and social media usage (Twitter, YouTube, etc.), and more effective customer relations management. A new hotel ranking system will be established and incentives will be offered to outstanding service providers. Tel Aviv and Eilat will be marketed for specific audiences.

And perhaps most important in the plans is a call to educate the public on treating tourists more hospitably. Israelis have a notoriously bad reputation when it comes to their interaction with visitors, similar to the image that gruff New Yorkers have.

The plan also calls for a removal of obstacles to tourism. In the next few weeks, the Ministry plans to remove the visa requirements for tourists from Ukraine. This will likely be followed by similar moves with other countries. The Ministry also plans to reduce bureaucracy for building hotels, and the like.

While foreign visitors to Israel dropped this past year, domestic travel increased, largely for the same or similar reasons. Over the weekend of New Years a few weeks ago, hotels and guest houses in the country’s north enjoyed a 100% occupancy rate. The Ministry, in fact, just announced a campaign to focus on this sector. Here’s a video from the campaign:

Clearly, the poor economy was one factor in this shift. But there are political factors at play as well. For example, the perennially popular Israeli tourist destination of Turkey is now seeing a tremendous drop in visitors from here.

[A]mong Israelis planning to holiday abroad during 2010, only 9% said they would do so in Turkey, compared with 16% who said they were planning a vacation there in 2009.

This amidst an increased percentage of planned tours to the Far East, Greece and Cyprus, Europe, Sinai and the United States. And on a diplomatic trip to Israel this week, Bulgarian ministers indicated a desire to attract a portion of the Israeli tourists who have stopped traveling to Turkey.

Another destination for Israeli tourists (and foreigners passing through Israel) is Petra, in Jordan. And yet, Jordan plans to increase entry fees for day trippers coming from Israel.

Jordan has decided to gradually raise the entry fee to the Petra site for those entering via the Arava border crossing near Eilat, angering many Israeli tourism elements.

By the last quarter of 2010, the gap will reach some $80. A tourist entering Petra from Israel will pay $130, unless they plan to spend at least one night in Jordan. Meanwhile, a tourist entering from Egypt will continue to pay today’s rate of $49.

These factors indicate that domestic tourism may also improve in the near future. while the 62% of Israelis who are planning vacations in 2010 represents a 4% decrease from 2009, a higher percentage of Israelis (23% versus 21%) plan to take those vacations domestically.

So overall, despite the 11% drop in foreign visitors to Israel from 2008 to 2009, I still see many reasons to think positively. Let’s hope these signs bring about the good changes they seem to indicate!

6 thoughts on “By the Numbers

  1. David S says:

    Perhaps you should work for the Israel Tourism counsel? as a US ex-pat, you can explain to them while we like the Israeli breakfast of fresh salads, pull apart breads and great coffee, we hate sharp doorknobs

    • Fun Joel says:

      Sharp doorknobs? Afraid I don’t catch the reference, sorry! 😉

      But yeah, I’d consider a job with them!

      (And thanks for the comment.)

  2. David S says:

    I’ve found many apartments and older hotel rooms don’t have round doorknobs, they have a rounder edge, nasty when they stick out of the door edge and your ribs hit them

  3. IsraeliMom says:

    I think the main obstacle to touring Israel would be price.
    We visited the US last year, and everything was so cheap in comparison. $60 a night for accommodation (for a family of four). Cheap car rental, cheap gas and cheap meals. It’s amazing, but if it wasn’t for the price of the flight tickets, vacationing in the US is much cheaper than vacationing in Israel.

  4. Fun Joel says:

    Thanks for the comment Israeli Mom! Yeah, I haven’t done the comparison, so I don’t actually know how the expense compares. However, if you are referring to Israelis taking vacations here or abroad, I know that the visa price to enter the States is pretty high. An Israeli just told me the other day that it would cost him $200!

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