Cruel Summer: Tourists Aren't Returning to Israel

Experts say Israel’s high prices and poor service due to personnel shortages are keeping foreign visitors away

Hadar Kane
Hadar Kane
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Tourists boarding the Rhapsody of the Seas ship, at Haifa's port.
Tourists boarding the Rhapsody of the Seas ship, at Haifa's port.Credit: Rami Shllush
Hadar Kane
Hadar Kane

The approaching month of Jewish holidays marks not only an exodus of Israelis, but also an influx of tourists. Yet despite a significant rebound in the number of tourists visiting Israel, the numbers are still well below pre-pandemic levels. In contrast, Israelis are heading overseas in even higher numbers than before the coronavirus hit in 2020.

The number of tourists visiting Israel currently stands at some 60 to 70 percent of pre-pandemic levels. According to data released by the Central Bureau of Statistics, the number of tourists entering Israel in August numbered 247,000, down nearly 25 percent from the 324,000 visitors in the same month in 2019.

Industry sources believe that the figures for the upcoming Jewish holiday period, beginning with Rosh Hashanah on September 25, will be similar.

Tourism during the High Holy Days tends to be made up primarily of Jewish tourists, mostly from the United States and Western Europe, and Israelis living overseas who are returning to spend time with families. Jewish tourists visiting the Holy Land at this time of year tend to stay mostly in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea area.

Tourists visit Hippos, overlooking the Sea of Galilee, in northern Israel.Credit: Gil Eliyahu

“Unlike many other sectors where we have seen a return to normal [following the pandemic], incoming tourism has yet to return to 2019 levels,” says Yossi Fattal, CEO of the Incoming Tour Operators Association. “I believe we will see tourism return to a level of about 60 percent of what it was before the crisis this year,” he says.

“Things have changed a lot,” he adds. “The kind of tourists coming has changed and Israel still faces challenges in providing the kind of overall experience tourists are looking for.”

Guy Har-Nir, chief operating officer of Kenes Tours (part of the ISSTA Group), agrees. “These aren’t pre-pandemic figures,” he says. “Tourism is changing and we still can’t say whether this is a long-term change or a temporary change as a result of the post-coronavirus shake-up.”

The main changes to incoming tourism result from the effects of the coronavirus crisis, which are still being felt. These include tourists taking shorter trips in smaller groups; major shortages of personnel, which have led to long waits at airports, cancellations and delayed flights, lost luggage, poor service in hotels and difficulties in operating tourist attractions.

On top of all that, Russia’s war in Ukraine has decimated tourism from both countries.

Tourists take a selfie in Jerusalem, this year.Credit: Emil Salman

Another major factor impacting incoming tourism is the high cost of living in Israel, which is widely regarded as among the most expensive countries in the world.

This may not be new – but it is having a growing impact. It is also among the reasons why Israelis are choosing to vacation overseas and tourists are hesitant to visit unless they have an affiliation to the area.

“The motivations to come here are more complex than for, say, London or Paris,” Har-Nir says. “The reasons tourists come here revolve to a large extent around religion, culture and history – be it Jewish or Christian. Israel’s tourism infrastructure is still far from what it was pre-pandemic, and that is a problem. Your classic tourist hesitates to come here. And then take into account problematic hotel service, flight cancellations and high prices. Most independent tourists and families prefer better-known destinations like Paris and Rome, and won’t come here just for an enjoyable vacation.”

Fattal says that high prices are a major obstacle to luring tourists back. “Israel charges prices for which it should be providing a product it isn’t managing to achieve. In the post-pandemic era, in addition to a clean room, tourists expect to get a cultural-spiritual experience – and we face a dilemma in how to offer that experience.”

Tourists leaving the Rhapsody of the Seas cruise ship, in Haifa.Credit: Rami Shllush

He adds that he expects to see good figures for the upcoming holiday period, since it is the regular crowd. However, he is more concerned about the following months.

“The Jewish holidays bring primarily Jewish tourists and people on family visits. The question is what happens afterward, in November-December with Thanksgiving and Christmas. We’re curious to see what the figures will be like then.

“On the one hand, you have to remember that there are no tourists from Ukraine and Russia because of the war, and in Europe people are talking about a deep recession,” Fattal continues.

“On the other hand,” Fattal says, “businesspeople have returned and there are groups of pilgrims that want to come, and Israel is a good winter destination for Europeans because of the weather.”

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