2010-2019 |

Flight Travel to and From Israel Soared in the 2010s, but Now It Will Come With Guilt

At the end of the decade it's clear: It almost doesn't matter where you fly. Sometimes you just have to get out of here

Moshe Gilad
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Jewish new immigrants from Ukraine, walk down the stairs as their airplane lands at Ben Gurion International airport on December 22, 2014.
Jewish new immigrants from Ukraine, walk down the stairs as their airplane lands at Ben Gurion International airport on December 22, 2014.Credit: GIL COHEN-MAGEN / ADL / AFP
Moshe Gilad

It’s not news that Israelis love to travel, but over the past decade this love has reached fantastic proportions. In 2010 there were four million departures out of the country; this year there were over eight million, representing more than four million Israelis who traveled abroad in 2019, many of them more than once. That means around half of the country’s citizens flew abroad at one point or another – a statistic unlikely matched anywhere in the world. We can claim mitigating circumstances – the heat, the overcrowding, a kid studying abroad or the fact that we can’t take a train to Beirut – but this is still an exceptional phenomenon.

But we’re not the only ones with the travel bug. It’s become an international craze. That’s apparently the only way to describe the skyrocketing tourism both to and from Israel over the past decade. In 2010 there were 11.5 million international travelers passing through Ben-Gurion Airport. Now, at the end of the decade, 24 million travelers have traversed the same arrival and departure halls. Nowhere else in the world has international travel increased by more than 100 percent during this time.

And if you just loved the lines this year, wait till next year. In 2020 the airport is expected to enter the ranks of the big boys: hubs that handle more than 25 million passengers annually.

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The number of tourists arriving has also doubled. In 2010, 1.9 million tourists came to Israel; this year, it was around four million. Some in the Tourism Ministry think that this is the greatest achievement since the Abraham arrived from Haran to Canaan, but others are starting to wonder why we need all these nudniks, anyway.

Low-cost rules

It’s easy to point to the moment when the craziness began: It was the Open Skies Agreement that went into effect in 2013. It will be forever remembered as former Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz’s greatest and perhaps only achievement. Low-cost airlines pounced on Ben-Gurion’s runways and the flood began.

EasyJet flew 130,000 people to Israel in 2010; this year it carried over a million passengers to the Holy Land. Turkish Airlines, once the largest foreign airline operating at Ben-Gurion, has yielded that spot to the Hungarian airline Wizz Air, which 1.2 million passengers flew this year. The passenger volume of El Al, Israel's national airline and still the largest one at Ben-Gurion, has dropped from a third of the passenger traffic to a quarter. This year El Al carried six million passengers. Low-cost is king.

Tourists walking up the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City, December 2018.
Tourists walking up the Via Dolorosa in Jerusalem's Old City, December 2018.Credit: Emil Salman

Part of the Open Skies trend was the huge increase in the number of available destinations. Have you ever dreamed of flying to Cluj-Napoca? Well, why not? It’s a city of 300,000 people in northwestern Romania, 300 kilometers from Bucharest. There are low-cost flights there for around 100 shekels ($29) each way. Why would you want to fly to Cluj? Unless you have an interest in the Klausenburg Hasidic court, which originated there, who knows?

Similar flights can be found to Timisoara, Romania; Lublin in Poland; Kosice in Slovakia and Debrecen in Hungary. They may not be dream destinations, but they’re cheap. You could conclude that at the end of this decade, it almost doesn’t matter where you fly. Sometimes you just have to get out of here.

The decade of Airbnb

Airbnb was launched in 2008, but it took around two years for it to hit its stride. If we had to affix a label to the past decade, “The Decade of Airbnb” could be appropriate. There is an enormous gap between how the platform was regarded at the beginning and how it’s perceived now.

At first Airbnb looked messianic. We didn't have to stay in hotels; we could adopt the vision of its founders, Brian Chesky and Joe Gebbia, and stay with local people to really experience a place – the sharing economy and all that. No one holds that innocent view anymore. Airbnb has become a business like all other businesses. It simply connects tourists with people who rent out apartments, most of them professionals who act as subcontractors. Eighty-two percent of properties rented out through Airbnb in Tel Aviv are rented out as entire apartments, and two-thirds of the active properties in the city belong to people who rent out at least two properties. This has a clear impact on apartment availability for locals and the price of long-term rentals in the city.

Many cities in Europe, among them Barcelona, Paris, Amsterdam and Berlin, are making a great effort to crack down on the various short-term rental platforms. Laws that impose special taxes on hosts, require landlords to register with the tax authorities and limit the number of nights a place can be rented are all aimed at reining in the too-fast growth of rental platforms like Airbnb.

The environmental factor

Israeli vacations have gotten shorter over the last decade. Twenty or 20 years ago, people would go abroad for three weeks. Now they go for three days. The prices are low, the destinations seem close, vacationing in Israel is expensive and clearing one’s head is a must. At the end of this decade, a romantic weekend in Rome or a few days of shopping in Berlin is almost a reasonable birthday gift. But this may change soon.

2019 will be remembered as a turning point. It was the year that tourism and the environment met to march together toward the next decade. While commercial aviation is responsible for only around 2 percent of global carbon emissions, airlines have become a target. Naturally, they are not pleased. The International Air Transport Association has come out against what it calls “unjustified shaming.”

But flying is starting to become unfashionable among the climate-conscious. It’s happening more in Europe, although there it's no great sacrifice, since you can get on a fast train to your next Italian vacation. Someone who lives on an “island” like Israel, which you can only leave by plane or boat, will have to choose between a flight, a cruise or a trip to Sinai.

The best advice to give under these circumstances is to stay as close to home as possible. A flight to Athens doesn’t cause as much environmental damage as one to Bangkok. If we must fly further afield, then let's take fewer but longer vacations. One long vacation is better for the environment then flying several times.

Since traveling is still one of the best things to do in life, I think it pays to continue to travel. But since the Earth is important to us all, it should be done with some thought, and closer afield.

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