The killing of Ahmed Yassin could not have come at a worse time for the tourist industry.
Even without the possible recriminations against Israel, Pesach was going to be a difficult one. French Jews scheduled to fly to Eilat will take up only half of the planned bookings; and Israelis themselves are not hurrying overseas due to the difficult economic situation or from general security worries. At times like these, they feel happier to stay at home.
But at this week's cabinet meeting, where ministers reviewed their ministries' activities over the past year, Tourism Minister Binyamin Elon reported an impressive rise in tourists in 2003.
Well naturally, it's easy to impress when talking about growth percentages, as 2002 was the historic low in terms of visits, just 862,000 tourists.
So when 1,063,000 turned up in 2003, this was an "impressive" growth of 23 percent, when it's really just a slight inching out of the hole. The tourism industry, and all that's connected to it, has been principally hit by the intifada.
The year 2000 was the peak in terms of tourism, with 2.67 million incoming tourists spending $3.6 billion. But then it all came to end that September.
More interesting than the number of tourists is the number of hotel-stays. This is a more reliable indicator of the state of the sector, because even if visitors do arrive, many of the Jewish tourists stay with family, eating at their homes, contributing very little to the economy. So, in terms of hotel stays, the number plummeted from its peak of 9.67 million in 2000 to just 3.29 million in 2003. That's just a third of the all-time high.
But even that isn't the full picture. In 2000, only 18 percent of tourists said they came to visit relatives. In 2002, this jumped to 44 percent, with the "real" tourists numbering few and far between. Similarly, in 2000, 52 percent of visitors came either as Christian pilgrims, or for traveling and touring. In 2002, this group accounted for only 14 percent of the total.
In 2000, 20 percent of tourists were Jewish, with most of them staying with family members. In 2002, 55 percent were Jewish. That means, that not only has the number of incoming tourists dropped dramatically, but, in terms of income, the composition of those that do come has deteriorated.
So while the average expenditure of a tourist in 1999 was $1,479, it was only $982 in 2002. The bottom line: Total revenues from tourism dropped in 2002 to only $1.2 billion.
But according to Elon, the security-political situation is not the determining factor. He believes that it is all a matter of his overseas marketing budget. He says that he reached an agreement with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the Tourism Ministry will receive an extra NIS 10 million for every 100,000 tourists that arrive beyond the million that arrived in 2003. He means an extra NIS 100 million, because according to his plans, no less than 2 million are arriving this year. But truth be told, Elon's total spending on publicity isn't worth a jot compared to one shot at Yassin.
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