Record Number of Israelis Traveled Overseas This Summer

Lower airfares create summer exodus, but incoming tourism continues to sag in wake of 2014 Gaza war.

The arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion International Airport, August 25, 2016.
Ofer Vaknin

The arrivals and departures halls of Ben-Gurion Airport have been packed all summer long. By Wednesday, close to four million people will have passed through Israel’s main international airport in July and August, a record.

Some 1.92 million people went through Ben-Gurion airport in July, a 9% increase from a year ago, and August is expected to reach 2 million. Last Thursday, a record 86,500 people boarded or got off 496 international flights, according to the Israel Airports Authority.

The catch is that an unusually large number of them are Israelis taking flights for holiday vacations overseas. The number of foreign tourists visiting Israel is down about 1.9%, and the decline was an especially sharp 5% for July.

Incoming tourism never recovered from the body blow it suffered in the summer of 2014 when, in the middle of Operation Protective Edge, a host of foreign airlines suspended service after a Hamas rocket landed near Ben-Gurion airport.

Tourist arrivals that year fell to 194,000 in July, from 246,000 the year before, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. They recovered almost to pre-conflict levels last year, to 245,000, but dropped to 232,000 this July.

Meanwhile, the number of Israelis flying abroad has grown steadily since the Open Skies agreement with the European Union went into effect three years ago, creating more competition by allowing more carriers to ply routes between Israel and Europe in particular low-cost carriers.

“Our figures show a major decline of 30% in the price for a vacation in the most popular destinations overseas since 2013,” said Ziv Ronen, CEO of the online travel site Gulliver.

In 2012, a year before Open Skies, 563,000 Israelis flew out of Ben-Gurion airport on international flights. That number grew to 628,000 the following year, and reached 831,000 this July. By the end of August, the number will exceed 1.5 million for the summer.

Industry sources say plunging oil prices and increased use of the internet for reservations have helped, too, by cutting fuel and labor costs.

The Israeli travel revolution has been a boon to El Al Airlines, which, despite fears that Open Skies would hurt it, remains the biggest carrier out of Ben-Gurion, with 31% of all international flights. Its smaller rivals, Israir and Arkia, each account for 10%.

In the second quarter, Israel’s flag carrier said net profit reached $35 million in the quarter, from $17 million a year earlier, as jet fuel expenses slid 21%, its load factor edged higher to 82.3% and its market share at Ben-Gurion increased to 34.2%.

The big loser since Open Skies took effect has been domestic tourism, especially the southern resort city of Eilat, where travel agencies said reservations are down between 5% and 15% this summer, compared with a year ago.

The Airports Authority reported that the number of domestic flights last month was down 3%, and the number of people flying them down 10.5%. Overnight stays by Israelis at Israeli hotels were down about 5% in July, according to the Israel Hotels Association.

Ronen said Israelis were less interested in Eilat than before not because prices there have risen, but because airfare overseas has become so cheap.

The wave of terror attacks in Europe hasn’t deterred Israeli tourists, although it caused them to adjust their plans. They are avoiding Western Europe in favor of more out-of-the-way destinations like the Greek islands, which accounted for 9.5% of all flights out of Ben-Gurion. Travel to Cyprus is up 34.5%, Bulgaria 28% and Romania 24.5%, according to Airports Authority figures.