The ‘Iran threat’: booming Israeli tourism sets records…

‘Despite Iran threat, booming Israeli tourism sets records’

Nearly 300,000 tourists arrived in Israel in July, a record for the month and an 8% increase over the previous July • Tourism Ministry: Each month of 2012 has set an all-time record for the month.

Israel is priming for a risky showdown with Iran over its suspected nuclear program, concerned about neighboring Syria’s bloody civil war spilling across the border and dealing with terrorists attempting to infiltrate from Egypt’s lawless Sinai Peninsula.

But that does not seem to deter hundreds of thousands of tourists from flocking to Israel each month. Despite the region’s turmoil, Israel is enjoying an unexpected tourism boom, and 2012 is shaping up to be a record year.

Nearly 300,000 tourists arrived in July, a record for the month and an 8 percent increase over the previous July, according to the Tourism Ministry. The trend is nothing new: The ministry says each month of 2012 so far has set an all-time record for that month.

“It’s a period where, on the face of it, we should be struggling with an economic downturn and the Arab Spring around us, but it hasn’t worked out that way,” said Uri Steinberg, head of the America department at the Tourism Ministry,

He said Israel initially hoped that tourists fearful of traveling to Egypt would choose Israel instead. But more often than not, he said, tourists planned Israel-Egypt combination tours and then put off the whole trip because of the unrest in Egypt.

Israel has more than made up the difference with American and eastern European travelers, who are arriving to the Holy Land in record numbers.

Just a decade ago, Israel was overwhelmed with suicide bombings and shooting attacks on buses and restaurants that killed more than 1,000 Israelis and devastated incoming tourism. With the recent years of calm, a post-9/11 sense that Israel is no longer disproportionately dangerous and an aggressive worldwide campaign to promote Israeli tourism, the tables have turned.

Steinberg said Israel had also become a destination for specialized tourism. These include Jewish and Christian travelers to the Holy Land, bird watchers, opera fans and marathon buffs.

Gay travel has also provided a boost. Tel Aviv was recently crowned by readers of the travel website GayCities and American Airlines customers as “Best Gay City of 2011,” ahead of New York, Toronto and London.

Young American Jews taking part in organized trips, such as Birthright Israel, are increasingly spreading the word back home to older, wealthier relatives.

“Faith-based travel, though, is our bread and butter,” said Steinberg. “There are 85 million Americans who identify as Evangelical, and they all want to visit.”

The numbers point to an economic rebound in the U.S., he said.

Nearly 70,000 of July’s tourists were from the U.S., a 9 percent increase over the previous July.

The second largest source, with just under 30,000, was Russia. In the past two years, Israel dropped its visa requirements for tourists from Russia and Ukraine. In the Ukrainian capital of Kiev, dozens of large billboards promoting Israel as a tourist destination can be seen flanking downtown streets.

Naturally, the holy city of Jerusalem is a top draw, attracting 80% of all those who visit Israel, according to the Tourism Ministry.

Not everything is rosy, though. Tourism operators complain of a severe shortage of hotel rooms and affordable accommodations. In Jerusalem, for instance, rates in upscale hotels start at $450 a night, and quality budget rooming options are limited.

Mark Feldman, CEO of ZionTours, the largest American-owned travel agency in Israel, said Israel catered to high-end visitors and modest pilgrims but offers little in between.

“Tourists are being overcharged for hotel accommodation,” he said. “I’d say Israel is a happening place to get away to. I wouldn’t market it as good value for your money, though.”

The fear of violence is never too far away either.

“The biggest concern here is whether Israel is going to go to war with Iran, but that is the only concern, by and large,” Feldman said.

The Tourism Ministry says it has no control over that. But in a partial attempt to rectify the price of travel, on Thursday it announced a $20 million investment to renovate and expand six hotels across the country. The initiative will add 146 hotel rooms.

The ministry said projects approved in 2012 are expected to add 1,123 hotel rooms overall, with $190 million in investments.

“Increasing the number of hotels promotes competition and reduces the cost of vacation packages for many Israelis and foreign tourists whose numbers are increasing and therefore we need to make the necessary preparations in order to accommodate them,” Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov said in a statement.

Photo:  A Tel Aviv beach on Friday.  Hundreds of thousands of tourists are still visiting the country each month (The Associated Press and Israel Hayom Staff).


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Eén reactie to “The ‘Iran threat’: booming Israeli tourism sets records…”

  1. kruitvat Says:

    U.S. officials concerned by Israel statements on Iran threat, possible strike

    An earlier version of this article misquoted Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak. The quote, which omitted a “not,” should have read: “The dividing line may pass not where the Iranians decide to break out of the nonproliferation treaty and move toward a nuclear device or weapon, but at the place … that would make the physical strike impractical.” This version has been corrected.

    By Joel Greenberg and Joby Warrick, Published: February 3, 2012

    JERUSALEM — Israeli leaders on Thursday delivered one of the bluntest warnings to date of possible airstrikes against Iranian nuclear sites, adding to the anxiety in Western capitals that a surprise attack by Israel could spark a broader military conflict in the Middle East.

    Defense Minister Ehud Barak, speaking at a security forum attended by some of Israel’s top intelligence and military leaders, declared that time was running out for stopping Iran’s nuclear advance, as the country’s uranium facilities disappear into newly constructed mountain bunkers.

    “Whoever says ‘later’ may find that later is too late,” Barak said. He switched from Hebrew to English for the last phrase: “later is too late.”

    The language reflected a deepening rift between Israeli and U.S. officials over the urgency of stopping Iran’s nuclear program, which Western intelligence officials and nuclear experts say could soon put nuclear weapons within the reach of Iran’s rulers.

    Although accepting the gravity of the Iranian threat, U.S. officials fear being blindsided by an Israeli strike that could have widespread economic and security implications and might only delay, not end, Iran’s nuclear pursuits.

    In a series of private meetings with Israeli counterparts in recent weeks, Western officials have counseled patience, saying recent economic sanctions and a new European oil embargo are pummeling Iran’s economy and could soon force the country’s leaders to abandon the nuclear program. Yet Israelis are increasingly signaling that they may act unilaterally if there is no breakthrough in the coming months, according to current and former administration and intelligence officials.

    “The Obama administration is concerned that Israel could attack Iranian nuclear facilities this year, having given Washington little or no warning,” said Cliff Kupchan, a former State Department official who specialized in Iran policy during the Clinton administration and recently returned from meetings with Israeli officials. He said Israel “has refused to assure Washington that prior notice would be provided.”

    Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta is one of several administration officials to express concern publicly that Israel is positioning itself for a surprise attack. Last month, the administration dispatched the Joint Chiefs chairman, Gen. Martin E. Dempsey, to the Israeli capital for high-level discussions about the possibility of a unilateral Israeli strike.

    “Israel has indicated they’re considering this, and we have indicated our concerns,” Panetta told reporters Thursday after a NATO meeting in Brussels. Panetta declined to comment on published reports that he thinks the Israelis could carry out a strike this spring, possibly as early as April.

    Although the Obama administration has not ruled out U.S. military action against Iran, White House officials are worried that a unilateral strike could shatter the broad international coalition assembled in the past three years to confront Iran over its nuclear program, which Iranian leaders have consistently said is for peaceful purposes.

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