By Maayan Jaffe-Hoffman/JNS.org
Twenty-five years ago, when Nancy Broth started her business, she signed a contract with El Al (the only airline that flew to Israel at the time) and helped people book their flights abroad. Today, Broth—owner of Caves Travel in Pikesville, Md.—works with multiple airlines, dozens of Israeli hotels, and a group of touring companies and guides. She says traveling to Israel has become not just for Jews, but an alluring vacation for people of all ages, sexual orientations, and creeds.
“It’s the Old City of Jerusalem, Masada, Ein Gedi, the Dead Sea,” says Broth, naming some of the most popular tourist attractions in Israel. “More seasoned people like to go to the Galilee, to Eilat, to visit Petra (the ancient city in Jordan). They go to the spa and the wineries—they all love the wineries.”
“Israel is the only place in the world where students, women, and kids can go by themselves to swim in the Tel Aviv beach at sunset, bike through the mountains, or jog through one of the central parks,” echoes Amir Halevi, director general of the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. “There is no other place where there is so much to do and people can feel safe doing it.”
Halevi tells JNS.org that he has seen a steady rise in people from all over the world traveling to Israel, even during times of heightened security concerns such as the current wave of terror—and despite the high travel costs. Hotel prices in Israel have increased by 70 percent over the last decade. Broth points out that even with alternatives to El Al, such as Turkish Airlines and Austrian Airlines, taking a plane halfway around the world is expensive.
Enter Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, who is trying to make Israel travel more affordable. In late February, Levin presented a bill designed to reduce the cost of vacationing in Israel by 20 percent over five years. The bill passed its first Israeli Knesset reading, and Halevi says it is expected to come up for second and third readings within the next few weeks and hopefully pass.
The bill changes the status of hotels in Israel from commercial venues to national infrastructure, which would allow their construction to be approved through a fast and simple procedure by the country’s National Infrastructure Committee. Further, independent local committees would be able to approve hotels’ addition of up to 20 percent of their rooms for residential purposes, which would reduce the risk of investment for the entrepreneur and increase financing sources, meaning faster return on investment.
Halevi says the tourism minister projects that if the bill passes, some 15,000 hotel rooms will be added within five years in Israel, and about 27,000 in 10 years. During the last decade, only about 3,000 new hotel rooms were built in Israel. Likewise, Israeli tourism officials expect the number of annual tourists in the Jewish state to increase from 3 million to 5 million within the next three to five years.
The ministry is also working through public-private partnerships to make Israel more accessible to all types of people. In March, Expedia declared the Israeli Tourism Ministry as the winner of its Middle East, Europe and Africa innovative marketing competition. Israel earned the designation for a campaign the ministry ran aimed at the LGBT communities in the United Kingdom and Italy.
The ministry worked with Expedia Media Solutions to position Tel Aviv as an LGBT destination; Tel Aviv was named the world’s best gay travel destination in 2012. As a result of the campaign, there was a 23-percent growth in passengers flying to Israel from the U.K. last year and 19-percent growth in rooms booked year over year from 2014 to 2015.
The Yad Sarah organization—Israel’s largest group of volunteers (6,000 members) providing a spectrum of free or nominal cost services designed to make life easier for the sick, people with disabilities, senior citizens, and their families—is also playing a role in making travel to Israel more accessible. About a year and a half ago, Yad Sarah opened a tourist services program that allows people who might not have been able to travel to the Jewish state because of sickness or disability to fulfill their dreams.
“We make it so that people, no matter their boundaries, can come and travel in Israel,” says Nadia Alalu, director of tourist services program.
Yad Sarah offers hospital beds, hoists, commodes, oxygen concentrators, and any other equipment that might be needed to make a tourist comfortable and provide for his needs while in Israel. The organization’s wheelchair-accessible vans can pick up travelers at the airport and bring them directly to their destination. Additionally, tour guides who specialize in accommodating people with physical disabilities can be recommended or arranged through Yad Sarah for a nominal fee.
“They come to us because they are having a bar mitzvah and they want their elderly grandmother to be there,” says Alalu, providing an example of the requests she receives. Sometimes, people come from abroad to receive special medical treatment. Then, too, Yad Sarah can set up their hotel room like a home-hospital.
Yad Sarah is available every day from the early morning until 7 p.m., and for emergencies 24/7, says Alalu. A tourist who falls and sprains his ankle, for example, can borrow a pair of crutches from Yad Sarah, just like an Israeli citizen could do through the organization.
“There is nowhere else in the world where services like this exist for free,” Alalu says.
“Everybody just loves Israel,” says Broth, who notes that she is always exploring the creation of new tour packages. “What is not to love?”
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