First time in years that Holy Land tourism is down (16%-28%); here’s why

If it were not for the Jews of the Diaspora, who come and go, and the groups of Christian pilgrims – although not as numerous as in the golden days – the situation would be catastrophic. This is confirmed by the official statistics and the evaluations by the trade. Analysing the data of the first quarter of 2015, the Association of Israeli Hoteliers calculates a drop of 28% in bookings for tourism. With the exception of Tel Aviv – which this time again is a case in itself – all the main destinations are affected, as reported by YnetNews: in Eilat hotels, the downturn is of 51%, on the west bank of the Dead Sea 44%, Nazareth shows a decline of 32% and Tiberias 31%. The situation is no better in Jerusalem.

The Central Bureau of Statistics is more cautious, but comparing the data of the first four months of 2015 with those of the same period in 2014 shows a downturn of 16%. There was a certain optimism at the beginning of last year: business seemed to be going well and hinted at the possibility of surpassing the turnover of 2013, but the war in Gaza in July and August struck down all ambitions.

The representatives of the hoteliers estimate at a billion shekel (over euro 232 million) the losses suffered due to cancellations and lost bookings due to the climate of war in the summer of 2014. There are of course other factors that discourage a recovery: the uncompetitive prices, the shekel which is one of the strong currencies and the crisis of the Russian economy (an area may potential tourists come from). However, the shadow cast by fears for safety in the whole of the Middle East is decisive: even though Israel, like neighbouring Jordan, all things considered, is not affected by the serious disturbances that characterize the bordering Arab countries, many prefer to stay away. In particular Europeans – starting with the Italians – and North Americans.

All in all, it is a set of linked causes, The fact remains that in the past few years Israel seems to be relentlessly losing ground. According to the classification provided by the 2015 Report on competitiveness in the travel and tourism sector – drawn up every two years by the World Economic Forum and published last month – the Jewish state has slid from the 53rd position it occupied in 2013 to the 72nd of world tourism destinations in 2015. This is a figure that is even more painful if we consider that in 2011 it was in 46th position.

Confirming the adverse economic situation in the region, there is also the decline of Jordan, which has dropped from 60th position in 2013 to 77th in 2015 (it was 64th in 2011).

Pessimists believe that the crisis will continue to bite in 2016 as well. The Jerusalem Post says that the Israeli Ministry of Tourism is not resigned and is increasing the marketing campaigns – also addressed to new market niches such as tourism linked to sports and music events – and promoting new air routes to Israel and, as far as possible, a better service of transport in the country.

In the meantime, on both the Israeli side and the Palestinian side, new tax measures are being studied to finance the sector and related services. According to sources in the local press, councils such as Bethlehem or Ramallah, in the Palestinian Territories, are thinking of introducing a tax of one dollar for every tourist who stays in the city’s hotels or has a meal in its restaurants (a similar measure has also been in force in many Italian cities for some years). The Israeli Ministry of Tourism is also evaluating the possibility of making tourists pay a small tax on the services they use.

Many operators are doubtful and wonder whether it is right, in a phase of contraction of the market and reduction of tourists, to make the stay of those who do come more expensive.