While there has been an increase in worldwide tourism in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, in Israel there has been some recovery in the last six months but we have not yet returned to the previous levels.
In the first half of 2023, 1.97 million tourists entered Israel – and spent about $3.26 billion, compared to 2.26 million tourists in the corresponding period in the peak year, 2019. This is a 13% decrease. In June, 322,900 tourist arrivals were recorded, compared to 244,500 in June 2022, which is an increase of 32%, but well below the 365,100 tourists that arrived in June 2019 - which is a 12% decrease.
The industry says that the relatively low rate of recovery is related to various factors, including terrorist attacks and roadblocks as a result of protest actions, but the main reason is the high cost of living and lodging in the country.
"According to the World Economic Forum, Israel is the most expensive country in the world for tourists," says Yossi Fatael, CEO of the Incoming Tour Operators Association. "The forum ranked us 117th out of 117 countries studied. Because of this, many tourists choose to spend the night and vacation outside of Israel – in particular in the territories of the Palestinian Authority, Jordan and Egypt. Indeed, we are witnessing a boom in the construction of hotels and tourism infrastructure in these countries, so it is clear that the phenomenon will increase in the coming years. On the other side of the Dead Sea, in Jordan, the tourist pays much less, so why would he bother to put his money into the Holy Land? The loss of revenue to Israel as a result will be high and may cause damage to the tourism industry that will be difficult to the point of impossible to repair."
How much more expensive is it here? We did a test, and the differences in the prices of similar vacations in Israel and abroad can reach to thousands of percent.
Eilat will be 10 times more expensive
Take, for example, a couple of British tourists who are looking to holiday in Eilat, the city of sea and vacation, on the Booking website. For August 4-6, two nights, they will have to pay on a bed and breakfast basis at the Royal Beach Hotel in Eilat, about 5,600 shekels, or more than $1,500 per couple.
But that same couple can also choose Sharm el-Sheikh, a half an hour's flight south of Eilat, and there at the luxurious Verginia Sharm Resort & Aqua Park, for an all-inclusive stay, the same couple will pay only $153, or 548 shekels for the same weekend dates. This is a difference of about 1,000%. Considering that there are cheap low-cost flights from London to Sharm, it is completely understandable why tourists would prefer Sharm.
Another option, further north but not far from us, in Crete, shows that two nights on the same dates in August will cost $845, or 3,036 shekels at La Mer Resort & Spa – a luxurious 5-star hotel. Eilat in this case will be 80% more expensive. In short, you can spend an all-inclusive week in Sharm for a third of the price of two nights in Eilat and an all-inclusive week in Crete for half the price of two nights in Eilat.
You can't see Tuscany from a shower
Let's move on to the Galilee, for a green and quiet vacation between magnificent landscapes and the wonderful Sea of Galilee, as well as Christian holy sites. A tourist who wants a seven-night vacation in a vacation home in the north at the beginning of August, will pay from $1,324 per couple, or about NIS 4,800, to double that. Tourists who only want a pampering weekend of two nights in the Galilee, or in Carmel, at the beginning of August will pay $1,189per couple, or about 4,300 shekels, at the Carmel Forest Spa and Resort, based on a room and half board. At the Mizpe Hayamim hotel in Rosh Pina, it will cost them $1,020 per couple, which is about 3,700 shekels. And in one of the B&Bs in the Golan or Rosh Pina it will cost between $380 and $560 and even more (For example, Boutique El Rom - $378, a house in the Galilee - $1,093, Forest View - $850, Rumi's Cabin - $362 in the Golan for $597.
So why should tourists choose the Galilee and not travel to Tuscany? On the Booking site this week we found a weekend in Tuscany at the beginning of August for $381 per couple in an amazing monastery from the 13th century that has been turned into a boutique hotel with 13 rooms: Convento San Bartolomeo. Yes, Carmel Forest accommodations are 300% more expensive.
A vacation for seven nights between July 30 and August 6 on a bed and breakfast basis will cost you $1,276 in this stunning place in Tuscany – the same as two nights in a medium-sized B&B in Israel. Who says we are crazy?
The Dead Sea? Choose a side
And what about the Dead Sea? Smear yourself in mud, float with a newspaper covering your face and inhale the soothing bromine vapors? On Booking this week we found two nights in August at Isrotel's five-star Nebo Hotel, from August 3-5, a Thursday to Saturday, on a bed and breakfast basis – for $641, or 2,336 shekels. We skipped to the other side of the Dead Sea, to hotels on the Jordanian coast, and found at the Hilton Dead Sea Resort & Spa, a four-star hotel in Sweimeh for two nights on the same dates on a bed and breakfast basis, for $458, or 1,672 shekels per couple. Our side is 40% more expensive. At Mövenpick Resort & Spa Dead Sea, also five stars, we found a similar deal for $395, or 1,417 shekels per couple.
City vacation? Barcelona is cheaper
Many tourists also like Tel Aviv, the non-stop city by the sea and its lively culture and nightlife. How much will it cost them to spend a vacation in the city? We chose the Carlton Hotel, five stars but relatively cheap. Two nights, from Thursday to Saturday at the beginning of August on a bed and breakfast basis, will cost $1,011 per couple, which is about 3,680 shekels. At the Kempinski Hotel, for example, it will cost much more –$1,614 per couple, or about 5,900 shekels.
And how much will it cost them in Barcelona? At Ohla Eixample, a five-star hotel, we booked 2 nights from August 3-5, including breakfast, for $673 per couple. In London, we found at the five-star hotel One Hundred Shoreditch, a 2-night stay including breakfast on the same dates for $646 per couple. So do you prefer Tel Aviv or Barcelona?
'The government does not care'
Not only are the prices high, but there is also a decline in the quality of service for tourists. 'In all the surveys conducted by the Tourism Ministry, the level of satisfaction of the tourists for the value of their money is ranked poorly," notes Patael, who points an accusing finger at the government. "There are no plans for the coming years for welcoming overseas tourists and domestic tourism. The government does not encourage domestic tourism," he said.
Patael points to a position paper published in 2019 by the Institute for National Security Studies in Israel, in which it stated that "the scope of tourism to Israel is an achievement that must be developed due to its political, social and economic importance."
Patael also says that while the tourism industry in the world is in constant growth and should double its scope in the next 20 years, Israel does not have a master plan for the field. The high prices are a consequence of this, along with an exhausting bureaucracy that poses difficulties for entrepreneurs. Building a hotel in Israel takes about 10 years, and the pace of building tourist infrastructure, relative to the development of demand, is very low. The lack of supply, combined with increasing demand, results in higher prices on the one hand and a decrease in the level of service on the other hand, explains Patael.
"The contribution of the tourists visiting Israel to Israel's image and position in the world is more valuable and worth more than all the public relations activities the government undertakes," Patael says. "But the Tourism Ministry is reborn with the election of each new government. The fate of the industry depends on the choice of the minister. Fortunately, the current minister (Haim Katz), as well as his predecessor (Yoel Razvozov), chose this ministry, and their political status is the only guarantee for the activity of the industry."
Idan Moalem, CEO of the government tourism company, told Ynet last week: "If you want to fight the cost of living and encourage competition in the field of tourism, you must promote the construction of new hotels, especially in Eilat. Once there is more competition, hotel owners will have to lower prices."
"In Israel, we have a problem of bureaucratic barriers in the world of planning, which hinder progress at the pace we would like," he also said. "In addition, the government is required to budget more broadly for tourism infrastructure, and to place much more emphasis on the maintenance of tourist sites. The new minister, Haim Katz, tripled the infrastructure development budget, which makes me optimistic, despite the challenges we face."
First published: 15:49, 07.19.23