The Israel tourism industry’s gradual recovery from the 2014 Gaza war picked up speed in the final months of last year but not enough to clear the bar set in 2013, figures from the Central Bureau of Statistics released Monday showed.
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The number of tourist arrivals came in at exactly 2.9 million last year, a 4% increase over the 2015 figures. But it was less than the 2.927 million who came in 2014, a number that was depressed by the outbreak of fighting that summer between Israel and Hamas militants, and below 2013’s 2.962 million.
However, there were indications that the growth in arrivals was accelerating after slowing growth from a low in the final quarter of 2015. The CBS said arrivals climbed 38% in November a year earlier to 288,000, and were up 26% in December to 248,000.
Tourists are returning to Israel for several reasons, among them stepped-up promotional efforts by the Tourism Ministry, which enjoyed an unprecedented budget for marketing Israel of about 500 million shekels ($130 million).
“Growing tourist arrivals to Israel is the result of major spending directed at marketing, including attractive campaigns, targeting new markets and developing brands relevant to different audiences,” said Tourism Minister Yariv Levin.
In fact, the marketing program has been plagued by difficulties and a campaign that fell flat, but the marketing of the southern Israeli resort town of Eilat as a winter getaway for Europeans seems to have gone well and was responsible for the surge in tourism in the final two months of the year.
The ministry spent 10 million shekels on promoting Eilat plus another 18 million subsidizing flights to Uvda Airport by 45 euros ($47.60) per passenger during the winter seasons. The Eilat Hotels Association kicks in another 15 euros.
Among countries sending more tourists to Israel, China was the hands-down winner, with an increase of 69% over 2015, albeit from a small base, according to CBS figures. Travel from the United States climbed 4.5% last year to 648,000, making it the single biggest point of origin.
Travel from Russia continued to decline in the face of a depressed Russian economy, falling 9.5% last year. Travel from France fell 2% but was up 17% from Ukraine.
One factor that certainly didn’t contribute to the growth in tourism last year was El Al Airlines. The aviation research firm FlightStats said Monday that Israel’s flagship carrier had the worst one-time performance of any major world airline in 2016.
Some 56% of all El Al flights arrived at their destination 15 minutes late or more, according to FlightStats.
El Al was plagued by labor disputes during most of last year, which included work slowdowns by pilots and cancelled and delayed flights. The dispute was settled in December, but the airline didn’t improve its on-time performance by much – 45% of its flights were 15 or more minutes late.
Meanwhile, the CBS said travel abroad by Israelis soared last year. Some 3.5 million Israelis traveled overseas, a 15% increase over 2015, as the Open Skies agreement with the European Union has cut the cost of airfare and expanded destination options.