JERUSALEM — Tourism to Israel continues to show a steady increase, with as many tourists coming to Israel in the first 10 months of 2003 as came in all of 2002.
Figures released last week by the Central Bureau of Statistics and the Tourism Ministry show that a total of 852,400 tourists visited Israel from January to October this year, up 20% from 707,500 during the same months in 2002. In October alone, 112,600 tourists entered Israel, which is 46% more than the number of tourist entries in October 2002 and 60% more than the number for October 2001.
The Tourism Ministry forecasts that 1 million tourists will visit by the end of the year, up from about 850,000 last year.
“More and more groups have realized that coming to Israel is worthwhile, that there is enough safety that they don’t have to be scared off,” said Mark Feldman, CEO of Ziontours travel agency. “They now accept what’s going on and have planned accordingly.”
From the United States alone, the number of tourists coming to Israel in October was 78% higher than in October 2002, with 28,500 tourists arriving; 210,266 tourists came from the United States in the first 10 months of 2003, up from 163,153 in the same period last year, an increase of 29%.
Gains were also recorded in tourism from Europe: 65,200 Europeans arrived in October this year compared with 44,700 a year earlier, a rise of 46%.
France registered a gain of 80%, with 16,754 tourists visiting in October this year, compared to 9,300 the year before. Overall for the first 10 months of 2003, there were 141,216 French tourists versus 97,140 in the corresponding period in 2002, a gain of 45%.
The United Kingdom showed 12,977 tourists arriving in October this year, up 38% from last year’s 9,392.
There were additional October increases in tourism from Germany (28%), Holland (36%), Italy (64%) and Spain (158%).
The current group of tourists who are coming are, for the most part, either seeking a religious connection or wishing to show solidarity with Israel, tourism industry insiders say.
“We push it as a solidarity concept, to support our country whose economy has been badly ravaged by the last two years of the intifada,” Feldman said. “That appeal is working. People want to come to Israel. We’re getting a far more religious, spiritual group than the pure leisure troop. Be it Christian or be it Jewish, their reason for coming here is not to go undersea diving in Eilat; their reason is because of a connection to the land and the people.”
One small sign of the rebound in tourism is the number of tourists who are seeking apartments for short-term rentals.
When the intifada started in 2000, apartment owners who would rent out their apartments short-term had to switch to long-term rentals to keep them occupied. With tourists starting to come back, there is now a dearth of short-term rentals on the market.
“I have no idea why it’s picking up now,” said Jerusalem real estate agent Rachel Greenberg. “People came for Sukkot, it was packed, and now again for the end of December — Christmas-New Year’s vacation — loads of people are looking for apartments. I actually don’t have apartments for them. A year ago it was terrible, even on Sukkot and Pesach apartments were available, which was very unusual.”
The increased demand for short-term rentals indicates that there is a return of the repeat tourist who knows his or her way around a neighborhood and does not need to be pampered by a hotel.
In addition, it indicates that people are coming with families, “because without families they go to hotels,” said Jerusalem real estate agent Leah Kaplan. “It also tells me that apparently people are feeling more secure, or they are feeling sufficiently insecure in their own countries that the relative situation has changed. Since they have problems in France anyway, why not go to Israel? What’s the difference?”
Feldman said he expected 2004 to be a very good year for Israeli tourism, though not like the record-setting year three years ago when the pope visited.
“Until Arafat’s out, nothing is going to go back to those days,” Feldman said. “We’re never going to see the height of our tourism until the chance for peace is nearer. And until that chance is nearer, you are not going to have people coming here for everything — for bike riding, for bird-watching — all the stuff that we had years ago. It’s just not going to return until we believe there is a good chance for peace.”