Israel tourist boom biggest for 60 years

Bend it like Geller: Uri Geller impresses visitors to the Israel stand at World Travel Market with his spoon-twisting antics

Bend it like Geller: Uri Geller impresses visitors to the Israel stand at World Travel Market with his spoon-twisting antics

Israel has enjoyed unprecedented tourism success this year, with a staggering three million international arrivals.

The figure, the highest in the 60 years since independence, presages a lucrative new source of prosperity for a country which saw foreign tourism dwindle to a near-standstill during the intifada.

Low-cost flights, the return of cruise ships to Haifa and what Rafi Shalev, new director of tourism in UK and Ireland for the Israel Government Tourist Office, calls the "football factor" have all been leading reasons.

"The England-Israel football match [in March 2007] was a catalyst," Mr Shalev told a press conference at London's World Travel Market this week.

"People came, saw the discotheques and the bars and decided to come back. We are seeing a new city-break market with visitors coming for just three or four days."

The city-break market - and a new focus on tourism spurred by cuisine, culture and other "lifestyle" interests - is epitomised by Tel Aviv, said Shaul Zemach, director-general of the Tourism Ministry. The ministry expects to capitalise on the city's coming centenary and its status as the international gateway to the rest of Israel.

But Eilat is also a vital factor in new strategies aimed at beating the credit crunch and keeping up buoyant tourism figures, he said. "We are repositioning Eilat as a high-end, rather than a backpacker, destination, with a dedicated micro-website already in development to show everything the resort has to offer."

Once strictly a dedicated sun'n'fun destination, Eilat is now underpinning a new two-centre market, combined by many foreign visitors with the north of Israel or neighbouring attractions like Petra, in Jordan.

El Al is operating a daily scheduled domestic flight to Eilat to supplement the activities of charter airlines which have dominated traffic to the resort - and has profited from competitors entering the UK market, according to Uri Danor, head of El Al's UK office.

"BMI has fed visitors from Scotland and Ireland into our international departures, and if we could get more slots at Heathrow, a third daily flight to Tel Aviv could be on the cards," he said.

Low cost flights, including those of Thomsonfly from both London and Manchester, have been responsible for an increase of more than 15 per cent in UK visitors alone to 180,000 this year.

Of those, 80 per cent were Jewish, with a new secular "lifestyle" tourist entering the market to boost the secondary pilgrim sector headed for Jerusalem and the Christian sites of the north.

A detailed analysis of mid-year tourism figures issued in July, by which time 1.7 million arrivals had been recorded for the first seven months of 2008, showed an overall increase of 41 per cent over the same period in 2007, with three times as many day visitors - a factor of returning cruise business.

The Tourism Ministry has been challenged with bringing workers - unused to such numbers following the lean visitor years of the intifada - up to speed, running workshops to improve professionalism in everyone from bus drivers to passport control officers.

Last updated: 4:41pm, November 13 2008