Warm Weather, Holidays Draw Israelis to National Parks in Droves

About half a million Israelis head out to enjoy fair weather, as fewer go abroad due to financial crisis.

The Jewish National Fund and the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said about half a million Israelis headed out to enjoy the weather and nature on Saturday, taking advantage of the holiday to visit national parks and reserves. Saturday may have been the nicest day to do so, with pleasant, even coolish conditions. However, the mercury is expected to rise in the coming days with hot sharav winds moving in through Wednesday.

The financial crisis is widely believed to be the reason why many Israelis chose to spend the holiday period at home, rather than travel abroad. The number of passengers passing through Ben-Gurion International Airport this year dropped by 8 percent from last year's holiday traffic, from some 520,000 to 494,000.

Still, officials at Ben-Gurion International Airport are preparing for the peak of this year's Passover holiday traffic, with some 43,000 travelers expected to pass through Israel's main gateway on Sunday.

In domestic tourism, Lake Hula in northern Israel was the most popular destination, drawing tens of thousands of visitors who came to watch the migratory birds that pass through the area on their way north this time of year. The cherry blossom was another popular attraction that drew visitors to the Golan Heights over the holiday.

The JNF said most visitors to parks and reserves belonged to one of two main groups: They either held barbecues or picnics near car parks or park benches, or engaged in physical activity like hiking or cycling. JNF officials said cycling has increased in popularity in recent years. The Beit Keshet Forest Scenic Route in the Lower Galilee region drew the largest number of cyclists.

Restaurants were working at maximum capacity to feed visitors to the north of the country. Thousands of visitors also visited the Canada Center in Metula. Nearby, in the Golan Heights village of Merom Golan, a local businessman said horse trekking tours were fully booked.

The most popular destinations for Israelis going on vacation abroad this year were the U.S., the U.K., Italy and Germany. Turkey, which was the most popular destination last year, remained a favorite, although the number of Israelis who chose to head there halved. Ties between Israel and Turkey have been strained since Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan stormed out of a joint press conference with Israeli President Shimon Peres at last year's Davos meet in Switzerland. However, the drop in the number of Israelis vacationing in Turkey is probably more closely linked to the global economic downturn than to politics. Indeed, it is widely believed that the financial crisis is the reason why fewer people are spending the vacation abroad.

Some passengers failed to reach their destinations on time on the eve of Passover: A technical malfunction on an Air Canada flight caused a seven hour delay at Ben-Gurion Airport. Ruth Ben Zur, the Air Canada spokesperson, explained that the Boeing 767 had to remain grounded until the problem was fixed. "Safety comes first. Even when we encounter a minor problem, we won't take off," she said. (Zafrir Rinat contributed to this report.)