Bicycle or roller blade on the Tel Aviv boardwalk, swim with dolphins, practice yoga in the desert, float on the Dead Sea.
After tens of thousands of group travelers canceled trips because of the summer fighting in the Gaza Strip, Israel is trying to recoup some of its losses by marketing the country to individual tourists as a fun-and-sun getaway.
“We want to get Israel on their minds,” said Pini Shani, head of the Tourism Ministry’s overseas and religions department. “There is great potential in the general market, people who come to drink and dine.”
Attracting them may prove to be a tall order because of Israel’s image as a war zone, Shani agreed. “No one promised me it was going to be easy,” he said.
Tourism, which accounts for 7.3 percent of Israel’s economy and employs about an eighth of the workforce, historically has struggled to recover from the country’s recurrent fighting with its neighbors. The Bank of Israel this week noted “a very slight recovery in the number of tourist entries in September following a low in July and August,” when the 50-day conflict took place.
Christian and Jewish groups who visit for at least a week are the mainstay of Israeli tourism. Because it typically takes large groups six to nine months to organize and register participants, once they reschedule, “it’s like starting all over again,” according to Shani. That’s given the ministry more incentive to diversify with individual travelers looking for short, spur-of-the-moment trips.
That’s where the cyclists and foodies come in.
The Tourism Ministry’s website offers information on the country’s cuisine, museums and entertainment centers. The current campaign is targeting travelers from the U.S., Germany and Russia, who came in increased numbers before the fighting.
“We are trying to boost this type of tourism,” Tourism Minister Uzi Landau told journalists last month. “It isn’t going to take place in a day, but we see first signs of it.”
Before violence surged, hotels, restaurants and resorts were headed for a record year, with tourist arrivals up 18 percent in the first six months from a year earlier. Arrivals during the three months between July and September were down by nearly a third from the year-earlier period, and Tourism Ministry director-general Amir Halevy has warned of continued cancellations.
Shares of El Al Israel Airlines, Israel’s flagship carrier, have dropped about 11 percent since the beginning of July, compared with a 2.9 percent increase for the TA-100 index.
Violence in Jerusalem that preceded the war has persisted, with Arab residents clashing with police and throwing rocks at cars, buses and trains. Last week, a Palestinian man drove into a crowd at a train stop, killing a baby and a tourist.
Palestinians blame the violence on the collapse of peace talks, Jewish settlement in homes in the city’s Arab neighborhoods and efforts to allow Jewish prayer at a contested holy site.
Noga Collins-Kreiner, a tourism expert at the University of Haifa, said while Israel may be mildly successful reaching out to niche markets, its real attraction still lay in its historical roots.
“If you want to see where Jesus is born, this is the only place,” she said. “It is with religion, tradition, culture, history and archeology that we play our winning card, with the New Testament as our best brochure.”
An incentive to individual travelers are lower-cost flights from Europe after the signing of an Open Skies agreement with the European Union last year, and cost-cutting Air BnB-style homestays, said Ami Etgar, general manager of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association.
Tel Aviv, with its relaxed, beach city atmosphere, is a big draw, and people can do day trips from there to Jerusalem and Masada, Etgar added.
Tel Aviv is also gay-friendly, and the ministry is planning a week of parties around New Year’s to try to attract that segment, Shani said.
Lower travel costs, art, hiking and good weather all play in the country’s favor, said Glenn Yago, senior fellow at the Milken Institute based in Santa Monica, California. “The potential is certainly there.”
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