For years, tourism in Israel has been about crossing international boundaries: Foreign visitors arrive with dollars and euros to spend, staying in Tel Aviv’s hotels, touring the markets of Acco and Jerusalem, and spending money on guided tours to the Negev and the Galilee; Israelis, meanwhile, have preferred to leave their own country when they go on vacation.
But not this year.
Last year marked a peak for Israeli tourism, with 4.5 million tourists. But now that COVID-19 has landed in Israel, closing borders, canceling flights, and requiring quarantines for any foreign arrivals, travel has been shut down in both directions. No tourists from abroad are arriving in Israel for the foreseeable future—and at the same time, no low-cost flights to affordable Berlin or Athens are taking Israelis away. This scenario is new to Israel’s tourism industry, but the industry’s survival in 2020 depends on its meeting a challenge like no other: convincing Israelis to vacation at home.
When looking at travel post-COVID-19 around the world, all trend forecasts have their bets on tourists staying closer to home: Americans will explore other states on epic road trips, while Australians will finally visit vast Tasmania. It’s understandable, however, that in tiny Israel—crossable by car in nine hours at the most, and closed in by no-travel zones—travelers’ eyes are normally set on international trips. In addition to the country’s small size and dense population, those who choose to go abroad for escapism, space, and relaxation, also cite their homeland’s skyrocketing prices as a reason to leave Israel behind: According to a 2019 Globes survey, Israel is considered among the most expensive countries for travel, from the price of beer to a night at a five-star hotel.
Israelis love to tour their country and visit national parks and natural reserves—and while local tour operators lost their international clientele, these sites are still expecting healthy numbers of visitors while the weather is pleasant. The problem arises when Israeli citizens come to face hotel and restaurant prices, which are unfavorable compared to a weekend abroad. But perhaps, all is not lost. Upon the announcement that Israeli hotels and zimmers could reopen with restrictions in the beginning of May, many businesses announced attractive packages and lowered their prices to lure the locals. The Drisco Hotel restaurant, George & John, is offering meal vouchers at a 31% discount. The Brown hotel group, with hotels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, is offering rooms as affordable as 480 shekels ($135), about 60% cheaper compared to the prices at the same time last year. Zimmer.co.il, a booking website for Israeli bed-and-breakfasts, has announced a variety of discounts, anywhere from a free upgrade for a kids’ room to 50% off. In Acco, the historic Effendi hotel is offering a 10%-20% discount, as well as a buyout option, allowing small groups to have the hotel to themselves.
“We’re aware of the issue and understand that we have to offer competitive pricing,” said Michael Hay, founder and managing director of Vision Hospitality. Vision manages and develops the properties of Atlas, a group of boutique hotels with business in Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Jerusalem, and Haifa. According to Hay, about 85% of their guests used to be from other countries. “We established a special crew that’s working on local marketing, and they came up with the idea of a bring-a-friend system, with incentives for customers who refer their friends,” he said. “It’s quite possible that if prices go down, people will be more encouraged to vacation locally. We just have to think how to make the offering unique and right for the market, how to market escape from local reality.”
While individual businesses try cutting prices, the Israeli government’s priority has been preserving diplomatic ties with neighboring countries and planning to open the country to international tourists, once the possibility presents itself. In the meantime, the government has also tried to promote domestic travel for Israelis: On May 5, the Ministry of Tourism’s website published an invitation for local authorities to participate in an upcoming campaign encouraging local tourism. The campaign will lead to a designated website with information on local trips and attractions, and local tourism boards that apply will be linked to.
The moves may be too little, too late, for some in the industry, however: On May 14, a protest by the Israeli Committee of Tourism Workers drew hundreds of people to protest by the Knesset in Jerusalem. Representatives from the tourism industry warned about a potential collapse of their sector and demanded financial compensation for lost work, a cancellation of tourism-related taxes, and lowering the prices of governmentally owned sites to incentivize visits. “I think there’s an opportunity for a long-term reform here, which the Israeli Hotel Association can lead,” said Hay. “In addition to talking to the government about differentiating the arnona [land tax] for post-COVID-19 relief, we should talk perhaps about legislation around Airbnb. There are many things to discuss.”
While some business owners and tour operators are counting on financial incentives, others see the COVID-19 closures as an opportunity to instill new traditions for local travelers. Visit Yeruham, a new initiative that launched in late 2019, is inviting Israelis to visit the Negev city, not previously known as a tourist destination. Used to working with Taglit and tour operators for international visitors, the project is changing focus, and the timing seems to be working in its favor. What it offers: a bundle of home-cooking and art workshops, a man-made lake, and desert-style lodging, including a youth hostel—all of it away from the crowds that frequent Tiberias, the rivers and the waterfalls of the North, and the Ramon Crater, destinations already popular with Israelis. “Our message is: If you want a sense of ‘abroad,’ a place that’s brand new to you, with interesting people and unique traditions, this is the place,” said Ilana Efrat, the manager of the Yeruham Tourism Association. With a new, expertly branded website, and marketing through local Instagram influencers among other techniques, Visit Yeruham is hoping to ride the COVID-19 wave to success. “We also offer a very affordable price point, since we ourselves are middle class and know what the cost of an Israeli vacation is,” Efrat said. “Israel is very pricey, and it’s unfortunately beyond our control, but we’re doing what we can. The main goal is to market this region’s rich story and get it out there. This is the right time to discover us.”
Can all this goodwill and cost flexibility be enough? Yanna Khaitovich, an Israeli lifestyle influencer and avid world traveler, was one of the Instagram personas Visit Yeruham recently hosted with the goal to spread the word to young Israelis. “In school, we were taught that Yeruham is a ghost town,” she said, “but I was surprised to have an amazing time. Just, wow.” But, when it comes to touring Israel further, Khaitovich says there’s room for improvement. “Prices are still an issue—even with the flight, a trip to Greece, Turkey, or Prague is more affordable than staying in Israel,” she said. “It’s also the fact many great tourist destinations, like the Dead Sea, are underdeveloped and stuck in the ’80s. No restaurant selection, no options.”
It’s certainly a process: The more local businesses offer the Israeli tourist, the more trust and willingness to vacation locally will appear. Then, perhaps, some clever entrepreneurs will open worthy eateries in close proximity to attractive vacation spots. Until eager tourists fill the country again, the affair between Israelis and their own country may at least begin, and perhaps become a permanent relationship.
Flora Tsapovsky is a San Francisco-based food and culture writer.