Summer 2018 Marks 'Turning Point' for Israel Tourism as Low-cost Carriers Break Through

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FILE PHOTO: The easyJet Airbus A320-251N takes off from Nice international airport for its inaugural flight between Nice and Tenerife, in Nice, France, September 19, 2018
FILE PHOTO: The easyJet Airbus A320-251N takes off from Nice international airport for its inaugural flight between Nice and Tenerife, in Nice, France, September 19, 2018Credit: \ ERIC GAILLARD/ REUTERS

The Israeli travel bug proved so powerful over the High Holy Days that even though the summer vacation season had ended just over a week before Rosh Hashanah, record numbers of vacationers have been passing through Ben-Gurion International Airport.

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The summer season was a record for air travel and in September, according to the Israel Airports Authority, the number of travelers at Ben-Gurion will exceed 2.2 million, an increase of 17% from a year ago. During the Sukkot holiday alone, which began on Sunday night and ends early next week, traffic reached 600,000 at the airport.

The number of travelers served by Issta, one of Israel’s biggest tourism companies, was up 12% this summer from a year earlier and the numbers stayed elevated during the High Holy Days, said Ronen Carasso, its vice president for marketing.

One reason, he said, was that the weather was still warm enough for vacationers to enjoy sun-and-sea holidays, which he warned won’t be the case in 2019 when the High Holy Days start much later on the civil calendar.

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Still, the sharp rise in flying this month took the travel industry by surprise. The summer vacation period ended September 2 with the start of the school year and Rosh Hashana began this year September 10, and travel professionals said they assumed few people would be packing their bags so soon.

Israelis have become much more frequent fliers over the last few years as the Open Skies reforms went into effect, offering lower airfares and more destinations. Low-cost carriers have not only gradually captured a major share of the market, they have changed the way Israelis plan for their vacations – making the market tougher for charters, veteran airlines and travel agents.

“This summer was a turning point,” said Efraim Kramer, CEO of Eshet Tours. “The situation at Ben-Gurion changed – low-cost carriers, which until now accounted for about 6% of all flights, mainly to nearer destinations, saw their share increase to 20% of all flights.

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“That has changed the way Israelis fly. They want to reserve the flight and the hotel themselves and not have someone give them a menu to choose from. This has affected the charter industry, which has been hurt badly,” Kramer said.

He said that while consumers are benefitting from lower fares and a greater selection of destinations, Israel’s Consumer Protection Law doesn’t apply to airlines that have no physical office in the country.

Another factor that is causing Israelis to take more frequent overseas holidays in the changing nature of work, said Carasso.

“Part of the reason travelers are taking many more vacations that they once did is that prices are lower, but also because many people today work during their vacation,” he explained. “Anyone who works in front of a computer doesn’t need to be in the office – he can work on the beach on Samui Island [in Thailand].”

In any event, the travel industry and airlines are necessarily earning bigger profits from the travel surge. “All told it’s been a good season, but it doesn’t mean we made a lot from it. Jet fuel is expensive and low-cost airlines took a lot of the pie from us,” said Carasso. “Israelis are traveling more but Israeli companies are profiting less.”