Although hotels rely mainly on domestic tourism during the summer months, the industry is obviously also concerned about the number of overseas visitors. Occupancy for this month is very good, thanks to the quadrennial Maccabiah games, but August reservations appear relatively slack so far.
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"I see a sharp drop in the number of overnight stays among French tourists in Tel Aviv during July and August, since they're coming for shorter vacations," says Avi Dor, CEO of the Prima Hotels chain. "Three years ago the French came for two weeks, last year it dropped to 10 days and this year it's fallen to seven nights.
We've also detected a jarring drop among tourists from the United States staying in Jerusalem, with a 14% decrease in the number of overnight stays in July and August - despite having shown flexibility in price in order to attract this group.
Americans used to plan their vacations two or three months in advance, Dor says, but now the time-to-travel margin has been shortened to two weeks or a month. “So things could change, with the cost of flying from the United States to Israel hopefully going down or our discovering that they were simply sitting on the fence."
Each month, an average of 250,000 to 350,000 tourists arrive in Israel, each spending $1,484 on a stay averaging 8.2 days. Strange as it may seem, the number of visitors during the summer doesn't differ from the rest of the year. For example, 296,000 tourists arrived in July 2012 and 297,000 the following month, but the top month of 2012 was May, with 321,000 arrivals. The difference in the summer is with the type of tourists arriving.
The first half of 2013 saw a 7% drop in overnight hotel stays, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, despite the number of incoming tourists remaining stable. Reasons for this include shorter visits, the decision to rent vacation apartments, and even staying with family and friends.
Daniel, who rents out a two-room apartment in Tel Aviv to tourists through airbnb.com, has benefited from the trend. Most months he charges 120 euros a night, but in July and August the price goes up to 180 euros.
"During the year I often find myself haggling with potential guests over the price, before finally compromising," says Daniel. "In July and August, however, this doesn't happen. I'll never lower prices during these months. Right now I have two weeks open in August for another apartment I rent out, but I'm not worried. Somebody will take it, for sure. Demand for rooms during the summer is triple what it is the rest of the year."
Incoming tourism during the summer consists less of groups and more of families coming to visit relatives or for Bar Mitzvah trips, as well as independent travel by individuals, says Tourism Ministry Director General Amir Halevy. The reason is that groups are used to lower hotel prices, and prices during the summer are high and less worthwhile for them., he explains.
"August bookings are quite weak. This isn't the August demand we're familiar with," says Shmuel Zurel, director general of the Israel Hotel Association. Reuven Elkas, general manager of the Fattal hotel chain, agrees: "August currently looks worse than last year in terms of tourist bookings,” he says. “At this point, less French are arriving, but we've learned in recent years that many come at the last minute, so it's still too early to tally up the figures.
"We can't attract the French market through lower prices, since the dollar rate has gone up 10% anyway since last summer and greatly lowers the final price for us in shekel terms, so we can't go any lower."
"August still looks a bit gray and gloomy," confirms Uri Kronkop, marketing and sales manager at the Atlas hotels. "Tel Aviv hoteliers are used to bookings by Diaspora Jews – from France or elsewhere – coming in at the last minute. They buy plane tickers and wait for hotel prices to drop."
"If it wasn't a Maccabiah we would be suffering a particularly poor July, and the evidence for this is August, which is shaping up to be a difficult month in Netanya," says Shimon Kipnis, CEO of the city's Island Suites Hotel. "From checking with the CEOs of other high-class hotels, I know they also have very low occupancy. After Tisha B'Av we usually receive a flood of calls for August reservations, but this year it didn't happen. There are reservations by the French for August, but it isn't the flood experienced last year."
Anat Starik-Dahan is VP marketing for the Tamares hotel chain, including Ashdod's West Boutique Hotel, which relies heavily on French tourists during the summer. She's aware of the last-minute bookings trend, but sounds a more optimistic note. "It's a worldwide trend, not just in Israel, and we'll wait to see what happens in the next few days," she says. 'I know that many tourists from France have booked flights and are now waiting to see if hotels have launched pricing specials. We're expecting bookings to come in by the beginning of August. An upswing could occur all at once."
One branch of the tourist industry doing well is the car rental business. "July and August are busy months for tourism in Israel and throughout the world," says Ilan Bronstein, VP customer service at Hertz Israel. "The average increase in activity these months is about 20%."
"We have a 30% increase in orders compared with last summer, and about 60% is from incoming tourism," says Eldan marketing manager Assaf Sternberg. "A significant rise in car rentals in recent years pointed toward a similar trend for the entire tourism industry."
One place the presence of tourists has been noticeable of late is at Tel Aviv restaurants. However, according to Ronen Arditi, owner of the Neve Tzedek restaurant Bellini, "It's vital like cherries on a cake: I can manage without them just as I manage all year. It's a wave that passes quickly for just one month. The restaurant doesn't depend on just tourists, but tourism accounts for a larger segment of our clientele during the summer."
French tourists overran the streets of Tel Aviv, Ashdod and Netanya in previous years, but Eyal Lavi, chef at Tel Aviv's three Rokach restaurants, says that’s changed now: "In our estimation, there is a 30% drop this July compared with last year. Not until the past week have I begun to notice more of the French crowd."
The onslaught of French tourists in Ashdod in previous years still seems absent this year. "We hardly felt the French here last year, and this year too we haven't seen them in droves," says Aviv Mazliah, owner of the beachfront Calma restaurant. "They really make up a small part of my clientele. Thanks to the West hotel which opened here this year, we're seeing many more tourists than last year, especially from Russia – which for us is much better tourism than from France. The French usually nurse beverages like coffee rather than order full meals, while the Russians do the opposite and spend more money."
The owner of another restaurant, who asked to remain anonymous, agrees with Mazliah. "I don't like the French much as customers," he says. "Their culture is cheap: They come in shorts and don't behave like Israelis or Russians, who come decently dressed. The French come as if this were a beach. Sometimes we're reluctant to accept them because they cause more trouble."
Despite the gloomy forecasts, it's important to keep in mind that July isn't yet over. Official figures on the number of tourists arriving this month, to be published only in another two weeks, will be positive because of the Maccabiah Games. At this point, it's also impossible to say how many tourists will ultimately arrive in August and where they'll be staying, so hotel occupancy rates could still see an improvement.
While many in the tourism and restaurant industries felt a drop in activity last summer and that the French were no longer arriving in their droves, official CBS figures actually showed a 2% increase in the number of visitors from France in August 2012 from the year before, and a 7% surge in July compared with July 2011. So it's best to wait for the final figures before jumping to conclusions.
‘Tel Aviv hoteliers are used to bookings by Diaspora Jews – from France or elsewhere – coming in at the last minute. They buy plane tickets and wait for hotel prices to drop.’