Noga, a mother of three in central Israel, has tried dozens of times on Booking.com to reserve a room for a few nights somewhere near Lake Kinneret. She tried various dates, both on weekends and during the week, at all the places where her family has stayed in the past. “Everything’s full, from Ein Gev Beach to Kibbutz Ginosar. There’s simply no room,” she lamented.
The family took day trips to the lake instead, but the sites they visited were also packed. “We went to Gofra Beach and there was no room to breathe. The family who came with us said it was the fifth place they’d been to, and all of them were intolerably crowded. It’s like there’s no coronavirus, no crisis. People want to get out, the children are going crazy at home and there’s nowhere to go,” Noga said.
It’s simple math. Last summer, some 2.4 million Israelis vacationed abroad. That’s not an option this year, but people still want a respite from the pressures of the pandemic, the ongoing political crisis, the economic recession and the heat. And so, they flock to local hotels, campgrounds and bed-and-breakfasts.
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The summer always means strong demand, but travel websites say that this summer, occupancy rates are much higher than usual. In addition, Gulliver Toursim, one of Israel’s biggest, says the average vacation has grown from three days in 2019 to five days this summer. That means the average cost has also climbed, too, by about 20% to 3,900 shekels ($1,150) for a couple with two children.
Just like in Europe
“We’re seeing a big increase in demand not only from luxury hotels but all B&Bs, house rentals and even hostels,” said Gulliver CEO Ziv Rozen. “People are looking for similar alternatives to a vacation abroad. A family that had wanted to holiday in a guest house in [Germany’s] Black Forest this year will go to Biriya Forest [in the Galilee], stay at a resort village, and take hikes every day.”
Rozen said many people were also reserving extras like bicycles and spa treatments because that’s what they do abroad. “Eilat and the Dead Sea remain popular, but the interest in the north has grown a lot, much more than last year,” he said.
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Shirley Cohen-Orkaby, vice president for marketing and sales at Eshet Tours, said there was especially strong demand for B&Bs and glamping (“glamor camping”).
Properties that had closed at the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March began to reopen after they were allowed to do so in May. They’re now enjoying their best season in years, with expectations that the boom will continue through to the fall Jewish holidays in September and October.
“Through the end of August, we’re at 94% occupancy,” said Shefi Mor, CEO of the company that operates the Merom Golan Resort Village, in the Golan Heights. “These are numbers we’ve never seen. In a good August, we’ll see occupancy rates of 80% to 85%. The demand is endless: Hundreds of people are calling every day, going into our website, sending email and even using personal connections to try and get a reservation. I have to tell them that there is nothing– everything is full.”
That’s a sea change since March, when the resort was hit by a wave of cancellations from local and foreign tourists and Mor slashed room rates 25%. “From the second half of March until May we were closed altogether .... In May, demand was still shaky, in June it began to recover and things really got moving in July,” he said.
Prices also rose by about 5% partly due to added costs and partly due to the losses he ran up in the spring. The facility must adhere to the government’s Purple Badge social-distancing rules, and its breakfast costs rose 30% because all items must be wrapped and packed individually. The resort had to hire additional staff, including cleaners, to meet the higher hygiene standards. As a result of the added expenses, even the summer surge has not offset the losses incurred during the spring, Mor said.
The Red Sea resort town of Eilat was hit particularly hard by the pandemic, since 80% of its economy is connected to tourism. Most residents work in tourism or in businesses dependent on it, so that at the peak of the lockdown, the unemployment rate reached 70%, according to the Israeli Employment Service.
The city has largely rebounded, but it’s still hurting.
“Contrary to popular belief, occupancy rates in Eilat are lower than they have been in recent years. That’s due to the absence of big groups coming in July and August – the seminars, conferences and organized tours sponsored by unions,” said Lior Mucznik, chairman of the Eilat Hotels Association and general manager of the city’s three Dan Eilat hotels.
For instance, the annual conference of the Institute of Certified Public Accountants in Israel, usually held in July, was canceled. It accounts for half the room reservations on the days it takes places, lifting total occupancy to 90%. “This summer we’ve had to rely on families and vacationers, not groups. Their numbers have grown because [foreign travel is impossible] but we’re running at just over 80% occupancy,” Mucznik said.
For the fall holidays, at least, Mucznik said the city’s hotels are in good shape. “As long as Israel is on the Red List, few countries will welcome Israeli tourists, so I assume things will stay this way. The situation after the holidays will depend on government directives, whether the skies reopen and whether you can hold conference and conventions.”
Mucznik said the pandemic has altered people’s travel behavior. Vacationers don’t want to reserve rooms in advance out of fear that the situation could change quickly. Most people request breakfast-only rather than half-board, he said. Since Arkia has canceled its flights to Eilat, vacationers are driving to the city, creating traffic jams and parking shortages.
The camping option
Camping, whether in parks operated by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority or private sites, offer a lower-cost alternative to hotels. They’re also full, though, proving that the travel surge isn’t confined to the well-off.
“Occupancy levels at our campgrounds is high – there are no vacancies until after the fall holidays. All the dates are taken and you can’t even register [for a waiting list],” said Limor Katan-Friedman, who is in charge of camping facilities at the agency. It’s been that way since June, she said.
“In an ordinary year, August is quite full, but nothing like this,” he said but added that part of the reason was that social-distancing regulations for the pandemic mean tents must be at least 10 meters apart. “On the other hand, we’ve been adding spots wherever we can because we understand there aren’t a lot of places to have a good time.”
She said the type of campers has not changed, but they are coming more often this summer.
“Before, campers would come once during the summer, now they’re looking to come two or three times instead of flying overseas. Another thing that’s changed is the complaining: Before, people would kvetch a lot, now they appreciate the effort we’re making. It’s also because it’s less crowded, so the experience is nicer.”
The places Israeli vacationers are shunning are the cities – Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Tiberias and Netanya. It’s easier to reserve rooms in them than it is in Eilat, especially for weekdays. In fact, many of these cities’ hotels have not even reopened. According to the Israel Hotels Association, 46 of 47 hotels in Eilat are open but in Tel Aviv just 46 out of 97 and in Jerusalem just 32 of 69.
Dani Assa, who owns the Armon Yam boutique hotel in the Tel Aviv suburb of Bat Yam, said occupancy rates have averaged around 25% since he reopened in May even though rates have been slashed to half their pre-coronavirus levels.
“I’m keeping the hotel open mainly in order to maintain the facilities, so the water pipes and air conditioning systems don’t deteriorate,” he said. “We brought back from unpaid leave just 10 of our 20 employees, we’ve applied for a loan and managers aren’t being paid. We’re trying to survive,” Assa said.