After the Palestinian intifada began in the fall of 2000, traveling to Israel became a statement of sorts. The Israeli tourism industry came to survive on a demographically narrowed but ideologically committed clientele: Christian pilgrims and American Jews. Leisure travel slowed to a trickle, with the overall number of visitors falling from a high of 2.8 million in 2000 to less than a million in 2002, according to the Israel Ministry of Tourism.
But after half a decade of empty hotel rooms, Israel seems to be drawing diverse crowds once again.
“More and more people are thinking of it as a vacation destination rather than in purely religious terms,” said Eileen Hart, a vice president of Isram World, a New York tour operator that specializes in Israel and sends as many as 20,000 travelers there annually. “Many years ago, it was retirees who tended to go – you know, ‘Let me see Jerusalem before I die.’
“But now it’s younger people, who are more interested in eco-tourism, like rafting and kayaking in the north, or a fun, cosmopolitan, resort destination like Tel Aviv, and in extending to Jordan and Egypt, where they can go trekking and camping in Petra or on a Nile cruise. It’s a great family destination.”
She estimates that Isram World received 35 percent more bookings this past summer season than the previous one.
Ms. Hart, along with other tour operators and Israeli tourism officials, ascribe the shift to the recent let-up in violence although they wearily acknowledge that the constant prospect of new attacks makes optimism difficult. On Oct. 26, a suicide bomber killed five Israelis at a market in Hadera, a city on the coast.
“I’ve ridden this roller coaster for a long time,” said Bob Faucett, a vice president of Unitours, based in Purchase, N.Y., adding that, as of late October, his company had not received any cancellations in response to the bombing.
Still terrorist attacks have decreased in the last year, prompting the State Department in April to ease its warning against travel to Israel. The Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in August, which proceeded without catastrophic civil disturbance, has also improved Israel’s international image.
Cruise ships, including Crystal Cruises’ luxury ship, the Crystal Serenity, are calling for the first time since the intifada began, and this year, the tourism ministry is expecting the number of tourists to exceed two million for the first time since 2000, though that year’s record figures remain out of reach.
Some travelers are relieved to be able to visit with less anxiety the same places they frequented even during the worst days of violence.
“Before, going to Israel was always so neurotic: ‘O.K., I have to be in downtown Jerusalem, but no buses, only cabs,’ ” said Aaron Bisman, executive director of JDub Records in New York, who visited Israel for a wedding in August. Mr. Bisman has been in Israel regularly over the last several years, but only for work or family functions. He said that he would return next year for vacation, his first since 2000.
“Finally, it feels quiet enough to go back without the excuses that it’s for work or whatever,” he said.
“We stopped because of the intifada in 2000, even though until then it was a very good year for us,” said Klaus Dietsch, a spokesman for Studiosus, a German tour agency. “So when we saw the handshake between Sharon and Abbas, we thought this was a good sign and decided to start again.”
Studiosus scheduled three trips this fall, but demand was so high, it expanded to 11.
The Israeli government has undertaken a series of ambitious measures to attract visitors. The Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian tourism ministries have established high-level contact to synchronize marketing strategies, ease visa issuance and border crossings, and entice foreign travelers with multicountry tours.
A planned 40-acre educational center in Capernaum, near the Sea of Galilee, in what is widely thought to be the area where Jesus lived and preached, aims to draw evangelical tourists, mainly from the United States. The tourism ministry has been urging Club Med, which just renovated its Coral Beach resort in Eilat and is contemplating a reconstruction of another in the north, to build a third in the coastal city of Netanya. A proposal from the tourism ministry to build a casino in Eilat, the southern resort near the border with Jordan, is in the works as well – although current law does not allow casinos.
“The tourism industry is one of the easiest to restart after a crisis,” Avraham Hirchson, the Israeli minister of tourism, said. “Take Eilat. The commodity is sun and nature. God gave it to us. You don’t need to build a new factory.”
Even if this optimistic assessment is true, it may have a less sunny corollary: when violence erupts, the tourism industry is one of the quickest to suffer. By 2002, more than half of the Israeli tourism work force found itself unemployed, according to Vardit Kaplan, a spokeswoman for the tourism ministry in New York.
“There was no point working in Jerusalem,” David Ashkenazi, who managed Jerusalem’s Olive Tree Hotel until 2001, said. “There was no one in the hotel.”
Today, Mr. Ashkenazi is the general manager of the new Grand Court Hotel, the third largest in Jerusalem, with 442 rooms, and the first to open in the city since 2000. The hotel was scheduled for a 2000 opening, but construction halted when the intifada began.
“Everything stood still for three and a half years,” he said. Building started again in 2004, a rebound year that brought 1.5 million tourists. The Grand Court opened this March with 30 percent occupancy; in October, perhaps partly on account of the Jewish High Holy Days, it was 80 percent full.
“I think people realized that Israel is not the only place in the world with terrorism, and it has given them confidence to come back,” Mr. Ashkenazi said.
Those who overcome their anxiety face a more practical obstacle: a shortage of nonstop flights to Israel, as some airlines, anxious about another downturn, hesitate to establish routes. For instance, only one American carrier, Continental, offers nonstop flights to and from Tel Aviv. A Web search for flights from the New York City area in mid-November found only a total of three nonstops over two days and only one was under $1,000 ($872 on Continental from Newark Liberty).
More competition should arrive in late March, when Delta plans to begin daily nonstop flights from Atlanta to Tel Aviv.
“We used to not be able to fill up planes, and now we don’t have enough seats,” said Arie Sommer, Israel’s commissioner of tourism to North and South America, noting that, in light of Israel’s recent history, “It’s an excellent problem to have.”