It’s Saturday afternoon at Ben-Gurion International Airport, and Liza is taking her suitcase off the baggage conveyer belt after a 16-hour flight from the United States that included changing planes. All she wants to do at this point is to get to her hotel in Tel Aviv to rest. Because the trains from the airport don’t run until Shabbat ends, she needs to take a cab to her hotel at 10 times the cost of the train.
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The absence of public transportation on Shabbat (other than in limited areas of the country, such as Haifa) is just one of the difficulties that foreign tourists traveling on their own encounter when they come to Israel. The option of an organized tour, with a guide and group transportation, is clearly the simplest route that visitors can take, but despite the convenience, not everyone is interested in that option and large numbers of visitors choose to tour the country on their own.
Sixty percent of foreign tourists to Israel come with organized groups, meaning that only 40% are here on their own. Independent travelers to Israel are outstanding ambassadors for the country in that they can spread the word about the variety of opportunities the country offers visitors. They are also a substantial financial asset.
“The independent tourist leaves more money behind on average than the tourist who comes in a group via an agent, because he uses public transportation, patronizes small businesses and restaurants, and usually stays longer than the group tourist,” says Yaron Burgin, an owner of the Abraham hostel in Jerusalem, most of whose guests are in Israel on their own.
“It’s the market segment that is experiencing the highest growth in world tourism. The number of people traveling the world has grown, and they’re mostly traveling alone, in an unorganized fashion, and that’s the clientele that we want to bring in. That’s the clientele that gives us our good name in the world. The backpackers of today are the ones who will return for more expensive and up-market travel in another 10 years.”
Burgin’s partner at the Abraham hostel, Maoz Yinon, who also owns the Fauzi Azar Inn in Nazareth, adds: “The money that the independent traveler leaves in Israel goes to small businesses in the vicinity of the place where they are staying. Everything stays in the local community and doesn’t go to big businesspeople, and in the process it contributes to enlivening the urban centers.”
After last summer’s fighting between Israel and Hamas and its allies in Gaza, another reason surfaced for Israel to woo the independent traveler. Independent travelers are the last to leave and the first to return around times of tension, Burgin says.
“An investment needs to be made in this clientele in an organized manner, and they need to be deemed a strategic target audience. Unlike a travel agent who needs to bring 80 people and bears a huge financial risk when he brings a group to Israel for a week, the independent traveler comes and says ‘if worse comes to worse, if there’s a problem in one place, I’ll go to another place,’ so although we had a drop [in business during the war], it didn’t go down to 10% occupancy but rather 50%. That’s a lot higher than other accommodations experienced. After October and November, the situation nearly returned to what it was before.”
And another advantage of independent travelers is their sources of information, Burgin adds. “What helps us is that the independent tourist isn’t connected to the traditional media of news channels and doesn’t act accordingly. Instead, he hears about places from social networks and friends, and decides where to go based on that and not based on an official recommendation of one country or another.”
Hostels in Tel Aviv and other areas of Israel report similar experiences around the time of the 50-day Operation Protective Edge in July and August.
“The first to return to the destination are the low-budget travelers, the brave and adventurous [types],” says Lee Balot, who manages The Green Backpackers hostel at Mitzpeh Ramon in the south, which opened about three years ago. “We get a lot of folks from one minute to the next, who return overseas and talk about us and how outstanding and safe it was for them, and then their friends come, and they tell their parents, and then the groups and masses come. Because they’re like that, we had work in September, when we never thought there would be tourists. We worked like normal.”
The rapid turnaround was also felt in Tel Aviv. “We recovered much more quickly than what we expected,” said Amalia Lavon of the Old Jaffa hostel. “Within two weeks, Operation Protective Edge was a thing of the past.”
It’s only been within the past year that the Tourism Ministry has begun to understand that this segment of the tourist market has been neglected in favor of groups. Then-Ministry Director General Amir Halevy decided that resources devoted to promoting travel to Israel should be directed to more popularly-priced travel options, including hostels.
“Most of the ministry staff doesn’t speak the language of the tourist traveling alone,” Halevy acknowledges. “They know how to deal with groups, and now we are preparing them to deal with tourism involving individuals. Our website, Go Israel, is an old site that hasn’t been touched for 10 years, and we are going to make radical changes to it in the next seven or eight months. It also [currently] provides content, but doesn’t provide sales links to providers [of travel services].”
And he added: “Now we’re [also] investing more in ‘city break’ packages such as sports events, gay tourism or travel for last-minute travelers who simply show up here.”
But even if the Tourism Ministry invests in an international campaign to attract individual travelers, it still does not address some of the difficulties that tourists traveling alone encounter.
“Individual travel is more dependent on infrastructure,” Halevy notes, “and in this instance, we are still a country that doesn’t know how to make public transportation accessible and available. Connections between tourist cities are weak. It’s very hard for the independent tourist to get from Acre to Haifa and from there to Nazareth or Tiberias [without a car]. What they easily manage to do in South America is complicated for them here. We are in contact with the Transportation Ministry on the subject, and are trying to look at it through tourists’ eyes.”
It should be noted that a number of bus companies offer guided day trips by bus to a range of tourist sites for the individual traveler, not only within major cities but also to relatively isolated spots. But for those insisting on relying on public transportation, in many cases it’s a different story, and conversations with some independent travelers in Israel currently bear out Halevy’s point. They say they find the public transportation system confusing.
On Shabbat, when there is no public transportation in most of the country, tourists can still avail themselves of shared “sherut” taxis that run on specific routes, but there are problems on that score too.
“It’s a great idea, but there is no website that shows me where the taxi leaves from, at what hours and what the prices are. Nothing,” said Rebecca, who has been traveling around Israel for the past two weeks. “It was only by chance that I discovered that I have a ‘sherut’ taxi from Ashdod to Tel Aviv on Friday evening.”
A tourist who wants to go by bus to Eilat, a resort town whose economy is dependent on tourism, can in fact get information in English on the bus route from the Egged bus company website, but a ticket can only be purchased via the Hebrew portion of the site.
Public transportation to some other parts of the country even poses difficulties for Hebrew speakers. “The Dead Sea is accessible [by public bus] only to one or two beaches and only from Jerusalem,” Yinon, of the Abraham hostel and the Fausi Azar Inn, says. “The bus to Eilat that takes Route 90 doesn’t pick up passengers from the area and generally access is limited. The line from Jerusalem to Nazareth runs twice a day in each direction at inconvenient times, and anyone who wants to get to the tourist site at the Caesarea port has a problem. Currently only a suburban bus goes there on an infrequent and problematic time schedule.”
Even the country’s general transition from paper tickets to Rav Kav debit cards that provide cheaper rides on buses and trains – not to mention the Jerusalem light rail – poses a problem for foreign tourists. Paper tickets are still available for individual rides, but as Balut of the hostel in Mitzpeh Ramon notes, “It’s not realistic to think that a tourist will go and buy a Rav Kav, so they have to pay more. They can’t benefit from any kind of discount or benefit, such as a day pass in Tel Aviv, and it’s a population that uses public transportation all the time. Everything is rather geared toward Israelis and domestic tourists.”
For his part, Yinon suggests making Rav Kav cards easily accessible to tourists when they enter the country, with explanations in a number of languages. He suggested that hostels around the country could also be allowed to sell them at a small profit.
Even tourists who opt to rent a car need to learn a few local rules. “The tourist has no way of knowing where to park and where not,” says Yael Rozenfeld, who runs the Hayarkon 48 hostel in Tel Aviv. (Metered parking is blue and white, and red and white zones are off-limits for street parking).