Air Traffic Down, but Pesach Tourism Still Bustling

Turkey, U.S., Britain, Italy and Germany are top destinations for Israelis traveling abroad this year.

Around 494,000 people are expected to pass through Ben-Gurion International Airport during Passover week, a drop of 8 percent from last year. The decline, attributed to the economic crisis, has affected both departing and arriving tourists, particularly those coming from the United States.

But neither the economy nor unseasonably cool weather have deterred tourism in northern Israel, where officials reported a nearly 95-percent occupation rate at the region's bed-and-breakfasts.

Some 350,000 visitors visited nature reserves, national parks and forests Thursday, taking advantage of several special events by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and Jewish National Fund. The INPA said the most popular nature reserves were Caesarea, Ein Gedi, Banias, the Yarkon Sources and Masada.

About 29,000 people passed through Ben-Gurion airport on 199 flights, while 32,000 passed through the day before on 207 flights.

Some 2,200 Israelis crossed into Sinai via Taba Thursday, according to the Israel Airports Authority, 500 more than the previous day. All but 350 were Israeli Arabs.

The Boombamela Festival on the Nitzanim beach in the south, which once attracted mainly families, hosted a crowd of 14,000 this year, mostly teenagers. It featured a combination of alcohol-heavy beach parties and new-age workshops.

Fifty-eight-year-old Alberto, with his wife Ariella and their grandchildren, from Gan Yavneh on the southern coastal plain, were an unusual site at Boombamela. "Every year the age of the participants goes down, but I don't care," Alberto said. "After the tension of Operation Cast Lead, we came to let loose a little."

Leading destinations for Israelis traveling abroad this year are Turkey - although in smaller numbers than in previous years - the United States, Britain, Italy and Germany.

Some 200 passengers scheduled to depart on the 1 A.M. Air Canada flight from Ben-Gurion to Toronto on Tuesday night were delayed until morning due to a technical problem before the plane had left Toronto.

Some 54,000 people are expected to fly to the Eilat and nearby Ovda airports on about 900 flights over Passover.

Many more holiday villages and bed-and-breakfasts held seder meals for guests this year compared to previous years, which may account for the higher-than-usual occupancies on the eve of the holiday.

Some hotels held three or four seders at the same time. Pastoral Hotel at Kibbutz Kfar Blum held a glatt kosher seder for hundreds of families that traditionally travel from Brooklyn and other parts of Israel for the holiday.

Shmulik Hazan, head of the Golan Tourism Association, said visitor numbers were expected to increase during the holiday, attracted by events like the cherry blossom festival, which opened Thursday at Kibbutz Ein Zivan.

The Mount Hermon ski site opened Thursday at no charge to visitors. The few bed-and-breakfast accommodations in the Negev were also full, with reservations made weeks in advance, tourist industry officials said.