Welcome to the Craziest Travel Season Ever

Israelis have pinned a lot of hopes on traveling this summer. But with endless lines, price hikes and no airport personnel, this summer could end up an uneasy ride

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People stand in line at Ben Gurion Airport.
People stand in line at Ben Gurion Airport.Credit: Moti Milrod
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

The travel agent said: “There’s insane pressure from people to make reservations, finalize, guarantee their exit. It’s lunacy. We can’t meet the demand. People haven’t flown for a long time. They were all shut in at home and now they don’t care how much it costs at all. The prices are high, but the Israelis are willing to make a reservation at any price now. What stands out most – they’re all traveling as families, extended families, ordering six, seven, eight tickets together. I can’t recall such a situation.”

Welcome to the craziest travel season ever. Even the veterans in the industry find it difficult to remember a similar state of affairs. Everyone simply wants to fly away from Israel in the coming months. They all feel that they deserve a trip, because they behaved well and sat quietly at home for a very long time. Moreover, they deserve nothing less than a nice, exciting, fabulous trip. Why? Because it’s been long enough, and people are sick of being anxious.

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'The bottlenecks existing in airports worldwide, and at Ben-Gurion in particular'

There are no differences of opinion in the tourism industry regarding the general situation. But more complex questions arise afterward, when people try to figure out where they’ll travel this summer; how often thye’ll travel this year; whether they’ll choose a nearby and modest destination like a relaxed Greek island or a challenging destination that they dreamed about in the past.

Revenge travel

Tourism giant Expedia conducted a survey several months ago that included 12,000 respondents from 12 countries. The results clearly showed that travelers (most of them Americans) felt 2022 was the year for the trip that they described as the GOAT (Greatest of All Trips). Forty percent of those polled replied that they’re looking for a destination that will excite them more than in the past, and that they’re willing to spend more money on a trip than ever before.

Passengers wear face masks at Ben Gurion International Airport, last month.Credit: Hadas Parush

They want to go big. Expedia has an interest, of course, in encouraging people to travel and spend, but the figures are interesting. Eighty percent of young respondents (up to age 35) replied that they would spend more money on travel this year, while only 56 percent of older respondents adopted a similar attitude.

Eran Keter, a lecturer in the tourism and hotel management department at Kinneret Academic College, describes this as “revenge travel.” Its characteristics are longer trips, during which people spend more money, or more frequent travel over the course of a year.

The Israeli starting point for all these is Ben-Gurion International Airport. There’s a problem there. Uri Sirkis, CEO of Israir Airlines and one of the veteran and experienced players in the industry, says the airport is the country’s Achilles’ heel.

Tourists swim in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, this month.Credit: MOHAMED ABD EL GHANY/ REUTERS

“This year there’s a potential for a fantastic year, but it won’t come true because of the bottlenecks existing in airports worldwide, and at Ben-Gurion in particular,” he says. “There aren’t enough slots [for takeoffs and landings] and there are huge lines that ruins the experience. The system is not built for such volume and isn’t built to accelerate in a short time. Ben-Gurion needs 1,000 workers, and they won’t be hired in the coming year. That means that only in 2023 will we be able to return to the normal situation. The operational challenge is hurting us. The crowded conditions and the shortage of personnel prevent normal operations. Employees who in the past earned 32 shekels ($9.30) an hour are now demanding 42 or 52. The solution to the situation can come only from government sources.”

There is global shortage in workers, Keter says. In the United States, he says, there is a shortage of about 300,000 tourism workers. Operations have become complicated and slow. In the past week, thousands of flights have been canceled in Europe and the United States, he notes, yet “Israelis are in a prison and are therefore willing to stand on line for four hours and to pay an extra $200 in order to escape.” Keter predicts that the Haifa Port will become an attractive alternative to the airport, thanks to the cruises being developed in its jurisdiction. “The hunger for traveling abroad is huge and the Haifa Port will help tthe Haifa Port will become an attractive alternativeo satisfy it.”

The empire returns

According to figures published this week by Booking.com, the 10 destinations most sought by Israelis in the past month were Sharm al-Sheikh, Istanbul, Lara, London, Antalya, Belek, Budapest, Paphos, Hersonissos and Rome. The result is clear – four of the destinations among the top 10 are in Turkey, and the list also includes locations in Egypt, Greece and Cyprus.

Sirkis says that a glance at the map reveals that there are no new or trailblazing destinations. “We’re all bruised and battered and want to go to the known and familiar. Both on the individual and the professional level. We tried several new destinations such as Albania and Malta or certain Greek islands, but the sales are stagnating. People want to return to London and Paris and Spain.”

Sirkis and other tourism experts interviewed for this article agree that so far, this year’s star is Turkey. (The interviews took place on the day when a travel warning was issued for Turkey, and it remsins to be seen whether this will affect bookings for this destination.)

Sirkis estimates that 2.5 million Israelis will visit Turkey this year. The reason is that Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogn has realized that he needs the Israeli public in order to revive the economy, he says. The visit to Ankara by President Isaac Herzog helped to accelerate the process, and the devaluation of Turkish currency makes vacationing there relatively cheap.

Ben Gurion Airport in April. Long lines on a daily basis.Credit: Moti Milrod

Keter also believes that Turkey will be the main destination this year. He says that three interesting things are happening there – Russian and Ukrainian tourists have disappeared; the scope of tourism in Turkey, which previously had 41 million tourists annually, has shrunk; and the Turkish lira has crashed.

Travel agent Zehavit Gagty also says that Turkey is a very popular destination for this summer. Although prices in Turkey are high for its own residents, she says, they are still very low compared to Israel. The main reason for Turkey’s popularity, she adds, is the quality of hotels and excellent return for money that a tourist in Turkey receives.

Hot, expensive and crowded

Travel agent Sigal Zvi says that most of the families still take a traditional type of trip in which they rent a car and reserve a series of hotels in advance. Such a trip might be to the Peloponnese region in Greece, the lake district in northern Italy, the Black Forest in Germany, or Provence or the Dordogne in France. Another popular destination this year is Montenegro, where one can find good beaches and lovely mountains. Destinations such as Naples in southern Italy, which came to public attention thanks to low-cost flights, are selling well, says Zvi.

Gagty also points to Rhodes, Crete, Kos and the Carpathians as destinations that are selling well. Portugal is a destination that has become popular fairly recently. Starring alongside it are the most veteran venues in the market – Paris, Rome, Berlin and London. Sirkis says: “Opening the flights to Sharm doesn’t have much of an effect, because the Egyptians allowed only four flights a week. That’s nothing. Some of the distant destinations, in East Asia for example, aren’t back to normal. Due to the increase in the dollar exchange rate and the fuel prices, people prefer to focus on closer destinations.”

Keter says that the main destinations of European tourists remain the beaches in Spain, the south of France, Greece and Croatia. In some ways, the coming summer will look like 2019 – hot, expensive and crowded. The difference lies in the fact that Asian countries have yet to return to the game and the Russians and Ukrainians are otherwise occupied.

Bystanders feed seagulls in Istanbul, this month.Credit: YASIN AKGUL - AFP

Keter names two products that are doing well. The first is urban excursions, which he says also include revenge travel, due to the opportunity to crowd together with people once again. The other is nature and walking trips in mountains and around lakes. These cater mainly to families with children or to people over 55. To this list he adds the Greek islands: “Greece was once just another European destination. In recent years it has climbed to the top of the continent. Israelis have to expect price levels there to increase greatly this year, and nevertheless, the destination is attractive.”

Further and higher

My of the interviewees agree that the United States has maintained its place this year as a top tourist destination, and has been little affected. But other distant countries have been. East Asian countries have not returned to the volume of trips seen before the pandemic. Japan has only now started to open its gates to tourists. Thailand, a very popular destination for Israelis in the past, is at a more advanced stage of reopening to tourism, but still is not operating as usual. In such a situation, attention being is turned to even more distant destinations – Australia and New Zealand.

The turning point was the onset of activity by large airlines from Dubai and Abu Dhabi (Emirates and Etihad). These are some of the largest and most active aerial crossroads in the world. Opening them to Israel is raising hopes in the opposite direction as well – for incoming tourism. The hope is that the routes will enable a large number of tourists from China and Korea to conveniently travel to Israel.

A woman shelters from the sun under an umbrella at the Spanish Steps during hot weather, in Rome, this June.Credit: GUGLIELMO MANGIAPANE/ REUTERS

For Israeli travelers, this is already significant. Zvi says that there is a great demand for reservations for flights to Thailand, Australia and New Zealand. Many of those buying tickets are families, and the duration of the trips is at least two weeks. “A ticket to Australia once cost $2,500. In February I issued tickets for $1,500. Many Israelis have children living there and the parents are traveling after a long period in order to see them. There are many flights and the prices are convenient.”

Another destination on this list is the Maldives, once considered an expensive and challenging destination, but “have become cheaper and closer,” says Zvi. Another popular contemporary destination noted by the travel agencies is Morocco. There are many flights available and the prices are convenient.

On the list of those who have enthusiastically embraced a resumption of travel, Zvi and Gagai mention young people recently discharged from the military. As part of that, they say, there is strong demand for flights to South America.

Although Israelis are traveling more than in the past, foreign tourists still aren’t arriving in large numbers and the figures are far from the 2019 record. In each month of this year so far, about 100,000 tourists entered Israel, compared to over 300,000 who visited each month before the pandemic. Part of the explanation is that COVID-19 tests upon entry into Israel were eliminated much later than in competing destinations.

As a result of an article published last week on the CNN website, in which Israel was presented as one of the 11 most tempting destinations for the summer of 2022, Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov issued an optimistic statement: “The tourists are returning to Israel and the numbers are very encouraging. Our effort to improve service, lower the prices of vacations and increase the offerings, so that in 2030 we’ll be ready to absorb 10 million tourists, who will bring tens of billions of shekels into the economy, is beginning to bear fruit, and the rest of the world sees that too.” Dreams can be deceiving, even in a year like this.

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