Touch wood, tourism stats are looking up: This past May an overwhelming total of 297,000 tourists visited Israel, breaking the record for that month. And where are they coming from? Heading the list are America and Russia.
The data published by the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) Tuesday shows a 60% increase in the number of tourists who visited Israel compared to last year, and a 5% increase compared to the current record for May 2000 – the year Pope John Paul II visited Israel – which was considered the best year for tourism thus far.
According to CBS data, 1.2 million tourists visited Israel between January and May. This fact is particularly impressive as it indicates a 47% increase compared to the corresponding period in 2007 and still higher than the number of tourist entries during the pope's visit, when thousands of Catholics gathered from all corners of the world to accompany him in the Holy Land.
President of the Israeli Hotel Association, Eli Gonen, said on Tuesday that while the figures are indeed remarkable and reflect a significant growth in tourism, it would be careless to allow the industry to get swept away by euphoria, Israel, he believes, can attract untold numbers of tourists if it widens its focus to new target audiences.
"Many of the tourists arriving in Israel are here for business or pilgrimages. But the relative calm pervading now means this is the time to invest in target marketing that would add leisure tourism to what Israel has to offer."
According to Gonen, despite the increase in entries, rising oil prices and the shekel's strength may impede the tourism industry.
Tourism from the US registered a 23% increase compared to the corresponding period last year with 189,000 Americans visiting Israel in the first third of 2008 alone. Second is Russia, with 97,665 tourists (this is mainly attributed to one-day trips offered by Russian companies.) Third and fourth on the list are France and the UK.
A senior official in the tourism industry said that the numbers could have been even higher were the ‘open sky’ policy in use - whereby any airline can fly to Israel, inviting genuine competition that would lower prices even as oil soars. “Competition is the name of the game; when tourists get a good deal – they
come,” he said.
Tourism Ministry Director-General Shaul Zemach said Tuesday that the figures are in line with the ministry's target projections – which aim for 2.8 million tourists in 2008 and 3.3 million in 2009. The Finance Ministry has transferred NIS 10 million ($ 2.9 million) to the Tourism Ministry to help promote marketing efforts in Europe.