Bargain Prices and Great Hotels Lure Israeli Tourists Back to Turkey

Despite continued bilateral tensions, the number has broken the 2008 record

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A New Year's Eve celebration in Istanbul, Turkey, January 1, 2020.
A New Year's Eve celebration in Istanbul, Turkey, January 1, 2020. Credit: Emrah Gurel/AP

“More than a few of our friends aren’t ready to even think about it as a destination, but what can you do when there isn’t another place you can fly to in one hour and get so much for your money in a super-luxury hotel that’s perfect for the kids,” wrote Gali Braun in the Facebook group “Abroad is here.”

She was talking about her family’s last-minute trip to Turkey during the Sukkot holiday in the fall.

“I put politics to the side. When it comes to service, the Turks are generous and pleasant. They only want that you’ll be satisfied,” she said. “If it’s not for you, the it’s not for you. We weren’t afraid, we were welcomed and we felt safer than in many other places overseas,” Braun said.

Her feelings about Turkish vacations no longer makes her an outlier among Israeli globe trotters. Even though President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has not let up on his verbal onslaught against Israel and Israel’s National Security Council has issued a travel warning for the country, Israeli tourist arrivals to Turkey reached a record high last year.

Official figures have yet to be published, but estimates are that some 560,000 Israelis visited Turkey in 2019, a 26% increase from the year before. If correct, that would put it well ahead of the record of 528,000, set in 2008.

On the Travelist price comparison site, Istanbul is cited as the big travel comeback story of 2019 for Israeli tourists. Antalya is now the No. 1 spot for sea-and-sun vacations, with a 10% increase in reservations over 2018.

The number of flights leaving Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport also reflects the popularity of Turkey for vacationers. In March, Turkish Airlines increased its daily flights to 10 from nine. While three-fourths of their passengers continue on to other destinations after they land in Istanbul, the remainder are coming for a Turkish vacation.

In addition, the Turkish low-cost carrier Pegasus flies to Istanbul four times daily. A third Turkish carrier, AtlasGlobal, resumed Flights last month after a brief suspensions of its global business the month before.

Where do Israelis go when they visit Turkey?

Istanbul is the main destination, but all-inclusive resort package deals, most notably in Antalya, once favored by Israelis, have also won renewed popularity. According to the Israel Aviation Authority, 533,000 people took direct flights to and from Antalya last year. That’s an 8% increase from 2018 but still short of the 2008 record, when Israelis swarmed to luxury resort hotels that offered affordable room rates.

Izzy Madam, CEO of the tourism wholesaler Easy Travel, which specializes in vacation packages and organized tours to Turkey, said that there’s a direct connection between the hit television series “The Bride of Istanbul” and the surge of travel to Turkey in the past year.

“When I tell my friends in Turkey that this is behind it, they’re surprised that Israelis would want to see the places that appeared in the show. But what can I do – it caught on big time. Just because of the series, thousands of Israelis came our way, 80% of them women. I’m talking about three or four groups that travel there every week.”

Noam from Haifa has traveled to Istanbul no less than three times in the past year. He said the city a fantastic destination, a mixture of east and west. For Israelis, it offers an especially alluring mix of shopping, food and short flying time at a relatively low cost. He added that he felt safe in the city and welcomed by Turks.

“We’ve seen growth in all destinations in Turkey, including Marmaris, which returned to the picture last year, and also Bodrum,” said Nir Mazor, vice president for marketing at the travel company Kishrey Teufa, referring to two Turkish resort towns.

“In Antalya we’re also seeing growth and, of course, in Istanbul, which is become a super attractive especially in the winter. Israelis are going crazy. … It reached a peak during the High Holidays, and in all sectors.”

He added: “We expect this to happen this coming Passover and summer season, assuming no other crises occurs. We see that Israelis no longer relate to small crises, because the Turkish tourism product is really excellent. But if there is something big were to happen, the number of Israelis will decline again.”

Nir said Israeli Arabs still account for the great majority of Israelis traveling to Turkey, but the gap has narrowed. “Even if their share of flights is bigger than other parts of the population in Israel, we’re seeing a rise in Jewish travelers, too, especially during the holidays and in the summer,” he said.

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