The Russians Are Coming Back

Record Number of Tourists Visit Israel in First Half of 2017

Nearly 1.75 million visitors between January and June, a 26% jump from the previous year; 31% increase in number of Russian travelers

Tourists observing the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, May 2017.
Tourists observing the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, May 2017. Olivier Fitoussi

Israel saw a record number of tourists visit in the first half of the year, with the number of arrivals climbing 26% from the same period in 2016 to 1.74 million, the Central Bureau of Statistics reported on Monday.

In June alone, the number of arrivals jumped 25.7% from the previous year to 303,400. And that was before the peak summer season got underway on July 1, the CBS said.

Travelers from the United States – the biggest source of visitors to Israel – saw numbers climb 20% to 400,600.

But CBS figures showed that the biggest rise came from the No. 2 market, Russia, where a long slump in incoming tourism, caused by the depreciation of the ruble and a recession, seems to have ended: Russian tourist arrivals jumped 31% year on year to 160,800.

Another big increase came from Chinese tourists, a small segment of the industry but one Israel has been determined to see grow. In the first half of 2017 arrivals grew 75%, to 60,900. Growth from France and Britain was much smaller at 9% (140,900) and 11% (95,600), respectively.

The record tourism figures come as the shekel is at its strongest against the dollar in close to three years, which increases the cost of a vacation in Israel.

Tourism Minister Yariv Levin credited his own ministry for the rise, saying, “Our policies continue to prove themselves. We are seeing that our innovative marketing to brand Israel can bring Israel to new heights.”

In fact, the Tourism Ministry has a record-high budget of 440 million shekels ($124 million), but a major element in the surge of tourism is Israel’s Open Skies agreement with the European Union, which was negotiated by the Transportation Ministry and has led to lower airfares and more airlines serving more routes than ever before.

Open Skies contributed to the surge of Israelis traveling abroad in the first six months, with the number rising 14% to 3.1 million.

The tourism industry remains an important contributor to the economy, with revenues generated from incoming tourism estimated at about 9.4 billion shekels in the first half of 2017.