It's not high airline fares that are keeping tourists away from Israel - it's high hotel rates, the chairman of the Tourism and Travel Agents Association asserted on Sunday.
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"Those who are saying that the failure to sign the [Open Skies} agreement with the European Union is what deters tourists from coming to Israel are just trying to shift the discussion away from the real issue, which is the high price of hotels. With hotel rates like these, we can't bring more tourists here," said Kobi Karni, launching a sharp attack on the Hotels Association at a conference Sunday at Kfar Maccabiah.
Hoteliers charge that signing the Open Skies agreement with the European Union - a measure aimed at bringing down airfares by liberalizing rules on flights between the two sides - could increase the number of tourists to Israel every year. But Karni insists that the real problem is that hotel rates in Israel in 2012 were the eighth-highest in the world, and the year before were the third highest.
"Price competition between the airlines exists without Open Skies. We need to protect Israeli airlines," he said. "I don't understand the desire to sign the agreement with the E.U., which at least defends the continent's big carriers. The E.U. is only interested in the benefits to Europe's economy."
The Open Skies accord, which would give unfettered landing rights in Israel and Europe to airlines from all the countries party to the agreement, was slated to be signed in Brussels last month before Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz backed out. Katz ascribed the delay to the "need to avoid making far-reaching decisions and out of the principle of good government during the election campaign." However, the ministry came under heavy pressure from Israeli airlines, which were backed by the Histadrut, not to sign the deal because they said it would hurt their business.
Karni stressed the importance of investing in tourism development as it boosts the entire economy.
"This is a painful subject," he said, comparing tourism development in Israel and Jordan. "A few years ago when we traveled to Eilat we could see the street lights on the Aqaba horizon. Now what we see is like Las Vegas. The eastern shore of the Dead Sea has undergone amazing tourist development. It's the Riviera with international hotel chains like Kempinski and others. What we have is salt and more salt."
Karni didn't blame the Hotels Association, but rather the Tourism Ministry. Israel builds 400 new hotel rooms every year and has a total of 350 hotels. In Jordan, there are 550 hotels, he noted.
The Hotels Association said in response that opposition to Open Skies is doing nothing more than hobbling the development of the Israeli tourism industry.
"The Travel Agents Association wants to preserve a status quo in the skies that is in fact a monopoly in which the fate of Israeli incoming tourism is in the hands of the fewer than 60 planes belonging to the Israeli airlines," it said in a statement.
Hoteliers pointed out that the Open Skies agreement would increase the number of flights to Israel, the number of European airports serving routes to Israel and the number of markets where travel to Israel is promoted.
The Hotel Association accused the travel agents of preferring the interests of a relatively small number of airline employees over the many more who work the country's overall travel industry.
The association stated: "The motive behind Karni's statements is an open secret: The European companies that will fly to Israel after the agreement is approved are mainly low-cost carriers that don't pay fees to travel agents as a way of lowering the fare to consumers."