The virulently anti-Israel movement known as Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement is roiling through college campuses, overflowing into city councils, encroaching into corporate boardrooms and now chomping at the essence of Israel’s special niche in the world: its travel and tourism industry. Everywhere, the boycotters have been asking to isolate Israel. BDS even convinced Airbnb to stop listing Jewish locations in Judea and Samaria, also known as the West Bank (a term invented after Jordan invaded in 1948, when the United Nations’ partition suggestion failed to create two states). In Ireland, a bill advancing through Parliament may criminalize visiting the old city and even purchasing lunch or a keepsake.
Whereas similar boycotts against other countries have inflicted withering effects on national economies, in Israel, it simply hasn’t worked. The opposite is true. Yes, boycotters are busy demonizing Israel. Yet despite this, Israel’s tourism industry has rocketed to a singular triumph and now employs tens of thousands. Flights are packed, with new nonstop flights being added across the globe. Even though new luxury hotels are going up as fast as the Mideast sun will dry concrete, rooms remain in high demand and, therefore remain scarce and expensive. Israel has become world-famous for creative cuisine and trendy eateries, so if you want to get a table at one of the most popular restaurants, you’ll need to book weeks in advance.
Travel and tourism to Israel has dramatically changed. It’s not just synagogue sisterhoods and Jewish organizations. Swelling up from Israel’s “Startup Nation” is top chef culture and the hard-won penetration of markets beyond America and West Europe, coupled with its sophisticated travel industry, which combine to make Israel a destination for the entire world. Traditional Jewish-American travelers from Miami to Seattle must now compete with Silicon Valley techies, Chinese students, Indian tourists, East European Christian pilgrims and diverse businessmen and women from across the planet. The numbers are multiplying.
In 2016, 2.9 million total worldwide visitors visited Israel. By the close of 2018, that number had boomed to 4.1 million—and the totals keep climbing. Within the coming decade, Israel expects to employ 98,000 people in its tourism sector.
When Israeli tourism prospers, so does the Palestinian community. Christian pilgrims make a beeline for Bethlehem. Thus, tourism breeds economic interdependence and strengthens co-existence.
Arrivals stream in from everywhere.
Today, most North American travelers to Israel are not Jewish; they are Christian, often seeking biblical discovery. From North America, Jews comprise about 40 percent to 45 percent of the travelers, while Christians generally hover at about 60 percent year to year, according to official estimates. While the Jewish-Christian percentages remain the same, the growth spurt for North America has seen the overall numbers increase by 42 percent since 2016.
In 2009, only 20,000 Indians visited Israel, reports Israel’s tourism office in New Delhi. Some years ago, Israel hosted Indian travel agents knowing that in India, such agents book most of the travel. Reciprocal travel programs tapped such markets as India’s Kerala Christians. Dramatically improved diplomatic relations between New Delhi and Jerusalem combined with thrice-weekly direct Air India Boeing 787 Dreamliner service—which was granted special Saudi flyover permission, saving more than two hours—has created a steady flow of Indian visitors. This year, Israel expects more than 80,000 Indian arrivals, with travel officials working to achieve a further 65 percent increase. That may happen if, as planned, the Israeli film industry entices Bollywood producers to use Israeli locations.
In 2015, only 30,000 tourists visited Israel from China. But when direct flights between Ben-Gurion International Airport and numerous Chinese cities were added, the number more than trebled to 100,000-plus annually. Today, China is Israel’s greatest growth market. Celebrity Chinese chefs are now flown in, and Chinese-speaking guides are easily found.
Air connections are the lifeblood of Israel’s tourism, as well as its international viability.
Nowadays you can fly nonstop to Israel from numerous North American cities. From New York’s JFK, Delta is launching a twice daily nonstop. From Newark’s Liberty, United also flies nonstop twice a day. From Washington, D.C.’s Dulles International Airport, United will soon inaugurate thrice weekly direct service. From Toronto, Air Canada offers daily nonstop flights. From Montreal, Air Canada will fly twice weekly during the summer. From San Francisco, United flies daily, primarily for the surging nexus to Silicon Valley.
North American carriers all compete with El Al, which is by far the dominant carrier linking our continent with Israel—boasting 45 nonstop flights weekly that carry more than 50,000 passengers per month. For many Israel-bound travelers, El Al is the one and only carrier. And it has vastly improved. With the exception of the Jewish Sabbath and holidays, Israel’s star-emblazoned national carrier flies day or night, rain or shine, good news or bad news, rockets or not. Its unique extra security, where young security staffers at the airport ask intense personal questions to evaluate risk, are sometimes viewed as a mix between reassurance, ritual and a Jewish guilt trip. “You’re coming to Israel? Why now?” Or the classic: “Who do you know in Israel?” Answer: “Everyone.”
El Al has conquered labor problems, on-board religious tiffs, and more to expand and enhance its daily service to and from multiple U.S. cities. Not only can you fly El Al nonstop direct from New York, Newark and Miami, but now also from Boston, Los Angeles, Toronto, and this summer, from Las Vegas and San Francisco. In spring 2020, Chicago service will begin.
Israel’s tourism triumph would not have been possible without an airline triumph as well. That triumph in the skies has finally happened.
Edwin Black is the author of IBM and the Holocaust, and a syndicated columnist who travels extensively, frequently reviewing the hotels he stays in. He personally and independently paid for all aspects of travel mentioned in this series. He can be found at www.edwinblack.com.