A Haaretz investigation into discounted group rates for tourists at leading Israeli hotel chains has revealed price disparities that appear to favor Christian travelers over Jewish ones.
According to a group pricing menu marked "2012-2013 Wholesale Rates," issued by the Dan Hotels Corporation and obtained by Haaretz, the Jerusalem Dan Hotel lists rates in two categories: "Pilgrim Rates" - the tourism industry's term for discounted group rates for Christian tourists - and the generic "Group Rates." Under the "Low Season" category, the pilgrim rate, booked on a "half-board" (breakfast and dinner only ) basis, offered dinner at a price of $6 - whereas the regular dinner price for group rates was $32, amounting to a discount of $26 per person, or $52 per room.
"Our hotels discriminate against Jews," said Mark Feldman, who leads the Jerusalem-based Ziontours. "When I book a group of Christian tourists, I get a discounted rate for pilgrims. But when I book the same rooms, at the same hotel, for a group of Jews, I get a higher rate. Why is there any difference whatsoever? I find that disturbing."
According to Feldman, a 30-year veteran of Israel's tourism industry, most of Israel's hotels and leading chains offer the discounted pilgrim rates in an effort to discourage Christian tourists from patronizing hotels in East Jerusalem or establishments under the auspices of the Palestinian Authority.
It is a decades-old industry practice, he says, but one that is generally not talked about. "As much as we have inter-religious dialogue, I believe that our Christian ministers and reverends are not sharing this with their rabbinic counterparts," said Feldman. "I've never heard them bring it up. I don't think most people are aware of it."
Leaders of two major U.S. Jewish organizations with large constituencies who were contacted by Haaretz said they were unaware of the existence of pilgrim rates. They asked not to be identified and preferred not to comment until they could study the matter further.
"As 80 percent of my business is Jewish, one would expect me to yell discrimination," says Yaacov Fried, owner of the Jerusalem-based Da'at Travel Services, a major tour operator with an office in the United States. "On the contrary, I think that the hotels are doing something very smart by having those two rates."
According to Fried, pilgrim rates are "a major incentive for a market that in general is not a rich one." He noted the existence of even cheaper pilgrim rates catering to African tourists visiting Israel, as well as exclusive "incentive rates" targeting Chinese and Korean travelers.
"For most of these tourists, this is a once-in-a-lifetime experience," said Fried. "That's why the prices are very affordable."
Though Fried maintains he could secure a discounted pilgrim rate for his Jewish clientele, the terms would be unsuitable for a group that generally does not book "half-board" rates and that prefers to patronize hotels with five-star or "deluxe" ratings, he said. "Pilgrim rates are geared toward Christian tourists who visit Israel during off-peak seasons for shorter periods of time and who mostly stay at four-star hotels where most of the Jewish crowd is not staying," said Fried.
But a Haaretz examination of the Jerusalem Dan rate card clearly showed year-round rate differentials in "pilgrim" and "group" rates for tourist groups arriving during the same periods.
For example, a Christian group planning to visit Israel for the Feast of Tabernacles, from October 1-7, was quoted a half-board "High Season" rate of $124 per person for a standard room at the Dan Jerusalem. Yet for a Jewish group visiting Israel that same week for its observance of the seven-day Festival of Sukkot, the per-person rate for the same room with the two-meal, half-board supplement would cost $145, a difference of nearly 15 percent.
The hotel rate differentials can amount to hundreds of dollars in savings for a couple planning to remain in Israel for a week or more, some tour operators who spoke to Haaretz noted. "That is pretty significant," says Miranda Gravitz, a senior travel consultant at Ziontours.
Ami Etgar, general manager of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association, rejected the notion that pilgrim rates were discriminatory, arguing that variations in prices in travel packages were no different than variations in airline ticket prices. "In [the tourism] industry, there is always a segmentation of markets," said Etgar, an economist. "This is not a question of discrimination. It's about supply and demand and the ability of different markets to pay."
And, according to Feldman of Ziontours, the hotel industry has apparently determined that Jewish tour groups - some of which visit Israel more than once a year - are indeed willing to pay higher prices. "The Jewish tourist, or the synagogue or ADL group, probably will end up spending more money in Israel," said Feldman. "Do we just assume that all Jews have money and there are no lower-middle-class Jews?"
"The issue of pricing is really a question for the hoteliers," said Etgar, who in a 2009 interview with the Israeli web site Passport News said his association has faced "strong competition" from an estimated 30 tour operators based in East Jerusalem.
Israel's Tourism Ministry did not respond to a written request for a statement or for a request to interview Minister Stas Misezhnikov regarding pilgrim rates.
Pnina Shalev, a spokesperson for the Israel Hotel Association, said the organization "was not familiar" with pilgrim rates and referred all inquiries to the specific hotels offering the rates.
Haaretz attempted to interview members of the sales and marketing department of the Dan Hotels Corporation, but was referred to the public relations firm of Ran Rahav Communications, Ltd., which issued the following statement: "The Corporation has long offered a large and diverse number of attractive marketing packages to different groups from all over the world."