Low Airfares to Thank as Israelis Flying Abroad Increases 18% in August

Lower fares and a weak dollar have turned Israelis into very frequent fliers this summer

Travelers at Israel's Ben Gurion International Airport.
Ofer Vaknin

With just a day left to the end of the summer travel season, Ben-Gurion International Airport experienced double-digit growth in fliers as Israelis take advantage of cheap airfares to take two and more overseas vacations every year.

The Israel Airport Authority said that some 2.5 million travelers will have passed through Ben-Gurion, Israel’s main international terminal, in August, an 18% rise from a year earlier. Together with July, traffic through the airport will show a 15% year on year rise to 4.68 million.

The IAA said it didn’t see much of a let-up in traffic in September. Even though the school year begins, the High Holiday season this year begins on the 21st, commencing another wave of travel. Based on current bookings, traffic through Ben-Gurion will be up 12% for the month to more than two million.

Another factor in the surge of September travel is the pilgrimage many religious Israelis take to Uman in the Ukraine, where the tomb of the Hasidic rebbe Nahman of Bratslav is located. Some 100,000 Bratslav Hasidim and others will for Rosh Hashana.

For all of 2017, some 20 million international travelers will have used the airport, up from 17.34 million in 2016.

Flying high Number of int'l passengers passing
through Ben-Gurion Airport, July-August, millions

“Just as the summer has been so good, so too will the holiday season,” said Ronen Carasso, vice president for the travel company ISSTA. “In the last few years we’ve seen a big change in the way people think. People are no longer embarrassed to travel abroad two or three times a year and some even go four or more times.”

He said many customers of his who travelled abroad in the summer have already reserved tickets for the High Holidays. “It wasn’t always like this, but airfares are cheaper, the dollar is low and people prefer a vacation overseas than in Israel,” he said, adding that holidays in Israel remain comparatively expensive.

The main reason for the surge in air travel by Israelis – one that has been nearly matched by growing inbound tourism – is the 2013 Open Skies accord with the European Union, which spurred more competition and led to a 25% increase in routes flown by low-cost airlines. Low-cost now accounts for 1.5 million passengers, or 15% of the total at Ben-Gurion, according to the IAA.

Oddly, given Israel’s continued tense relations with Turkey, one of the top destinations for Israelis taking a beachside vacations this summer has been Turkish Cyprus. Although August figures aren’t in yet, in July the number of people flying to the Turkish occupied northern half of the island jumped 77% from a year earlier to 87,000.

“It’s become a hit destination. The big hotels remind them of the club hotels Israelis loved in Turkey. Some of them have casinos, which attracts a lot of Israelis,” said Gil Stav, vice president for marketing at the airline Israir. “It’s gotten to the point where hotels are overbooking – even they can’t believe what’s happening. They were surprised as anyone by the sudden demand.”

Turkey, once a top destination for Israeli vacationers before relations deteriorated, has also seen growth, with 188,000 travelers flying there in July. That was a 36% jump from the same time in 2016 but still much smaller than the peak year of 2008.

“There are a lot of people who aren’t scared of Turkey The majority are from the Arab public, but Jews also choose to vacation there,” said Dana Lavi, vice president of the travel site Daka 90.