Tourism is booming in Jerusalem. But for visitors at the city’s religious and historical sites, the boom often spells bust as they confront long lines, traffic and a lack of parking.
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With clashes and threats of violent uprisings following U.S. President Donald Trump's dramatic announcement to recognize the city as Israel's capital, that all could change.
Take the Western Wall, visited by more than 70% of all tourists visiting Jerusalem.
“The drop-off areas are blocked by buses parked in them, sometimes there are private vehicles that are not even allowed to wait there to begin with,” said Rafi Rozanes, a tour guide. “So when I'm escorting tourists who are in Jerusalem for the first time and deserve a good experience, I end up asking them to walk from far away – even if they’re older, or it’s hot outside or it’s a walk, of more than a mile. My bus driver has nowhere to stop.”
The Kotel isn’t the only jam-packed destination. The wait on lines to ascend the Temple Mount or enter the Church of the Holy Sepulcher can run from two and a half to four hours. In not a few cases, tour guides get into shouting matches or even fisticuffs defending their turf.
Israel is enjoying a resurgence of tourism this year thanks to the absence of security problems and the Open Skies agreement with the European Union, which has increased numbers of flights and reduced airfares. Some 3.6 million tourists are expected to arrive this year, up 24% from 2016, and nearly 80% of all visitors to Israel spend time in Jerusalem.
The city expects to record nearly 4.8 million overnight stays this year, a 35% increase of 2016 and by far the highest number ever, according to the Israel Hotels Association. Some 980,000 of those will be Israelis and 3.8 million by foreign visitors, the latter a 45% increase.
Some of the growth is due to a low baseline. The 2014 Gaza war sent Israeli and Jerusalem tourism into a nosedive, only picking up in the last 18 months. Nowadays, security fears that once cast a shadow over tourism to Israel are long forgotten.
“In the middle of the week, we hardly hear any Hebrew in our restaurant - only English, Italian, German and other foreign languages,” said Uri Inbar, who owns the Menza and Primitivo restaurants in Jerusalem.
“Tourism in Jerusalem has grown dramatically - I don’t remember anything like it. From what I hear from tourist guides, all the hotels are booked and they tell me that they can’t find rooms here anymore, so they send groups to stay at the Dead Sea,” he said.
The boom in tourism is magnifying the city’s failure to provide critical infrastructure required to host such growing numbers of visitors. Even as the number of overnight stays is soaring, the amount of new hotel rooms is growing slowly – by just 442 rooms in 2015 and 2016, and 742 this year. Growth is projected to fall to just 452 next years, according to the Jerusalem Development Authority.
“The main problem that we see is a lack of understanding by the authorities, the police and the municipality there they need to develop facilities and help the tourist in the street,” said Rozanes. “They’re always talking about bringing more tourists, but there’s not a single serious arm that whose goal it is to make sure that these masses of people can move easily around the Old City.”
Ironically, the city may get some unwelcome relief from the tourism crowds after U.S. President Donald Trump announced Wednesday official recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Thursday saw violent clashes in the West Bank and rockets launched from Gaza.
“As a veteran hotelier, I’m afraid. The declaration is coming at the wrong time for us,” said Avi Dor, CEO of the Prima hotel chain, which has four properties in Jerusalem.
“Despite what’s happening in Syria and the attacks that happens from time to time in Israel, when we talk today to travel agents from around the world, no one looks at us as a security problem. The [Trump] declaration could re-open those doubts,” he said.