At a tourism conference three weeks ago in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made a prediction that the number of foreign tourists coming to Israel would triple in the next decade to 10 million. So, how will that happen and what can be done to remove the barriers to the growth of tourism?
No one questions the tremendous potential of Israeli tourism. This is a modern country with good weather and some of the most important religious and historical sites in the world. Excluding visitors who stayed for less than a day, 2.9 million foreign tourists came to Israel in 2012. Even the 2015 goal of 5 million tourists, set under former Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov, seems out of reach. Some industry figures reacted with skepticism to forecasts of a huge spike in the numbers of foreign arrivals.
"Netanyahu's statement is irresponsible. It's a theoretical figure without any significance," said the executive director of the Incoming Tour Operators Association, Ami Etgar.
Yossi Fattal, head of the Israel Tourist and Travel Association, said that throughout history politicians have had "no trouble making promises about the future without any connection to reality."
Netanyahu is to appear in a film about Israel by travel journalist Peter Greenberg, whose work has been broadcast on the Travel Channel and the U.S. Public Broadcasting Service. Sources at the Prime Minister's Office said similar programs have significantly boosted tourist arrivals for other countries.
Foreign tourist arrivals for stays exceeding one day increased 2% from 2011 to 2012. Last year's tourist arrivals are indeed an all-time record, but they fell short of the 4% growth in foreign tourism worldwide reported by the United Nations World Tourism Organization was 4%.
Industry figures cite the following as among the issues that could be addressed:
Making Israel more attractive to independent travelers:
About two-thirds of foreign visitors to Israel come with groups. Fattal, from the Tourist and Travel Association, says that reflects a lost opportunity in the country's failure to attract more tourists traveling on their own.
"Individual tourist travel is more varied with respect to the sites that they visit and they also do so throughout the year. This kind of tourism is more stable than group tours, which are dependent on political events and the pictures that appear in the world media," he said. Independent travelers also patronize small businesses that group tours don't get to, Fattal said, because groups travel along a fixed itinerary of sites arranged by tour guides.
Hotel industry consultant Ronit Kornfeld said a growth in the number of boutique and life-style themed hotels can attract visitors who have not come to Israel in large numbers in the past. She cited, for example, the increasing numbers of business people coming here who in the past attempted to conduct their business here by long distance. She also noted the potential of hotels that attract gay tourists. In recent years, gay tourism has grown particularly as Tel Aviv has built a reputation as a gay-friendly city, particularly around the time of the annual pride parade.
Among the suggestions for attracting more independent travelers are the encouragement of investment in boutique hotels in the cities and country lodgings as well as expanded transportation options to outlying tourist destinations for the individual traveler.
Making Israel a cheaper travel destination:
Industry sources expressed hope that the decline in the value of the dollar will be halted and that the Open Skies agreement that Israel signed with the European Union to liberalize aviation traffic to and from the country will drive down airfares. But Etgar also called for the construction of new hotel rooms to drive down the price of accommodations: "If we want to get to the 5 million tourists that the prior tourism minister aimed for, we need to build hotel rooms. According to a study from 2009 that looked at the supply of accommodations necessary for such numbers, it turns out we are short 19,000 rooms. Nine thousand rooms have been built or are in the process of being built since, meaning that we still need 10,000."
There are also those who say that hotel prices are increased by excessive expenses hotels must spend on items such as municipal taxes, security and kashrut supervision and suggest that ways be explored to lower these costs.