Trying To Salvage Summer Israel Travel


The recession and lower fuel costs have resulted in airfare prices that have not been seen since 2002. Now, armed with discount air/hotel packages and other incentives, officials of El Al believe they can help revive the flagging tourist trade to Israel.

“We are optimistic about the summer because of the new campaigns we are launching and the lower prices,” said Haim Romano, El Al’s president. “We feel the market is coming back.”

But not everyone is so sanguine. Rafi Farber, deputy director-general of the Israel Hotel Association, was quoted Monday as describing the tourism sector as “in a deep crisis.” He said Israel’s military offensive against Hamas in January, coupled with the global economic crisis, is causing “heavy declines in overnight stays and occupancy rates at hotels.”

He said hotel stays by foreign tourists dropped 27 percent in April alone. Among the hardest hit areas were Tiberias, which was down 46 percent; Jerusalem, which was off 35 percent; Haifa, which was down 32 percent, and the Dead Sea area, which was off 28 percent.

The Ministry of Tourism, however, reported Monday that an intensive marketing campaign in the U.S., Europe and Russia helped to blunt the drop in tourism. It put the decline at 14 percent in April alone, compared with 25 percent during the first quarter of the year.

At a press conference here earlier this month, Romano said that despite that first-quarter drop in tourism to Israel, El Al experienced a 10 percent drop in traffic from the U.S.

An El Al spokeswoman, Sheryl Stein, said the discrepancy between all the figures stems from the fact that not all tourists stay in hotels. “Many tourists stay with friends and family here,” she said. Farber pointed out also that many visitors have homes in Israel.

But because of the decline in tourism, Romano observed that the “cost of land services is cheaper.” And to make visiting Israel even more attractive, he said El Al is offering discounts of up to 40 percent for platinum business class travel and up to 30 percent for economy class travel from the U.S. to Israel, compared with 2008. In addition, there are special savings of up to 50 percent for families traveling with children.
This was made necessary, Romano said, because of the “huge reduction of business travelers in the last five to six months. And people who used to fly first class were flying business, those who flew business were flying economy and those who fly economy don’t fly and sometimes don’t work.”

But he said “things are getting more and more normal now” and that he expects a rebound soon in first class and platinum business class travel. Romano pointed out that for the first time, El Al has seen an increasing number of passengers making late bookings.

The airline is reviewing the possibility of reinstating nonstop flights between Miami and Tel Aviv.