Foreign Tourism to Israel Drops as More Israelis Travel

Figures on January foreign tourist hotel stays are not yet available, but December's numbers were down 9% compared to December 2014 and 28% compared to December 2013.

Hilton in Eilat.
Moti Milrod

The downturn in foreign tourism to Israel continued into January, the Central Bureau of Statistics has reported, falling 1.6% compared to the same month the year before.

But even last year’s January’s figure is relatively unrepresentative of the true extent of the downturn. During the prior summer, in July and August of 2014, Israel fought a war against Hamas and its allies in Gaza, and the following January, tourist numbers were still recovering from the summer’s hostilities.

A total of 164,800 foreign tourists arrived in the country last month, compared to 167,500 in January of last year. But when last month is compared to January of 2014, when tourist numbers were surging, this year’s January performance was down 17.6% from January of two years ago.

Nevertheless, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin expressed optimism Tuesday at the opening session in Tel Aviv of the International Mediterranean Tourism Market conference, saying that Israel was making major changes in how the country is marketed around the world. He expressed confidence that Israel would attain a more prominent position on the international tourism map. Not enough has been done in this regard over the years, he admitted, noting that this year there is a larger promotional budget, in addition to long-term marketing plans.

The opening session of the IMTM convention was attended by 1,600 overseas delegates from more than 50 countries. The exhibition portion of the gathering is expected to attract about 10,000 people from the aviation and tourism sectors in Israel. The conference highlights both incoming foreign tourism to Israel and the businesses serving Israelis traveling abroad. The largest foreign delegations at IMTM are from India, the Philippines, Peru, Panama, Spain, Portugal, Poland, Greece, Cyprus and Italy.

Unlike recent years in which the promotion of Israeli tourist visits to Turkey was absent – against the backdrop of strained relations between the two countries – this year, travel Turkish and Israeli agents promoting a range of destinations in Turkey are among the exhibitors. A representative from Dorak, a Turkish agency, expressed the hope that more Israelis would visit her country this year.

As expected, the downturn in foreign tourist arrivals in Israel has affected hotels around the country. The figures on January foreign tourist hotel stays are not yet available, but December’s numbers were down 9% compared to December 2014 and 28% compared to December 2013.

In comments to delegates at the IMTM conference, the president of the Israel Hotel Association, Eli Gonen, was critical of the Tourism Ministry for encouraging low-budget foreign tourism to Israel and also complained about the absence of oversight or the imposition of hotel taxes on short-term stays in apartments that are promoted through websites such as Airbnb. Such websites present increasing competition to local hoteliers.

Gonen welcomed the expanded promotional budget that has been made available by the Tourism Ministry and noted that people from around the world of various religious faiths want to visit Israel, but in a jab at less conventional tourism accommodations such as trailers, camping grounds and Airbnb apartments, he said if travel agents want to earn a return on their efforts, they need to refer their clients to hotels.

In contrast to the situation when it comes to foreign tourist arrivals, the increase in the numbers of Israelis traveling abroad last year continued at the beginning of this year, and the year as a whole may even better the figures for 2015, which was a record-breaking year.

Travel by Israelis abroad was a major factor in the 938,400 passengers who flew on international flights in or out of Israel in January, a 9.1% increase over the month in 2015. The leading carriers in terms of numbers of passengers were El Al Israel Airlines, Turkish Airlines (many of whose passengers connect via Istanbul to destinations outside of Turkey), EasyJet, Aeroflot and Lufthansa.