President’s Column: Streaming Through an Open Door
I arrived with two friends at one of my favorite Jerusalem restaurants just as I always did—unannounced. But instead of being ushered immediately to a table, I was greeted by an apologetic hostess who said the wait would be at least 30 minutes. At first I felt irritated, but as I looked around the packed dining room I realized that something bigger was taking place, something more important than my desire for a good meal.
From its founding, modern Israel has been challenged and blessed at the same time. The long struggle to build a nation with few natural resources and the constant but elusive quest for peace have been sources of frustration. On the plus side are the absorption of millions of immigrants, the revival of Hebrew, the greening of deserts and steady economic progress. Also in the plus column is a thriving tourist industry.
Until recently, however, tourism in Israel was one dimensional, focused very much on religious and cultural heritage. The typical Jewish tourist itinerary included Jerusalem, Masada, a kibbutz visit and perhaps a quick dip in the Mediterranean or the Dead Sea. Christian tourists also visited Jerusalem and then headed to Nazareth and the Sea of Galilee.
Heritage travel remains strong, as it should. But if Israel was once a niche destination offering spiritual and emotional attractions that existed nowhere else in the world, it now competes on the global tourist scene with its world-class restaurants and wines, hotels and spas, theaters and concerts, adventure and shopping. And the growing infrastructure of recreation, accommodation and culture has highlighted the value of things Israel has always had in abundance—sun and beaches, vistas and byways.
All of this helps explain why tourism in Israel reached record levels in 2009-10. For the Hebrew calendar year 5770, which ended in September, more than 3.1 million tourists visited, according to the Israel Ministry of Tourism. This represents a 10-percent increase over 5768 (2007-08), the previous record year. What is perhaps just as impressive is that during 2008-09, coinciding with the global recession, the decline in tourism to Israel was a modest nine percent, compared with nearly 35 percent for Italy and Spain.
The traditional tourist stops in Israel remain popular, with Jerusalem still atop most itineraries. But Tel Aviv, long the nation’s financial and cultural center, is now a first-class destination in its own right, with its architectural, cultural and culinary landmarks attracting more attention around the world. From the Galilee to the Negev to the Red Sea, visitors are spreading wider, and looking deeper, across the landscape than ever before.
The growth in tourism means that the profile of the typical visitor is changing. There are still many families arriving—you should have seen the crowds packing into the thousands of sukkot in September—but there are also people for whom the pull of family and tradition are either secondary considerations or no consideration at all. Israel is just a great place for a vacation. It is also an open, diverse society that engages tourists of all tastes.
The one disadvantage in all of this for those who love to visit Israel is what I discovered while I waited at that restaurant in Jerusalem: Flights are packed, hotels are frequently full, restaurants have lines and concerts are sold out. The government and private enterprise are working to increase capacity.
But the satisfaction at Israel’s latest success (despite boycott threats, millions are voting with their feet) outweighs the inconvenience of having to plan ahead. As someone who has been traveling to Israel for several decades, I can tell you that seeing the throngs at Ben-Gurion Airport, the packed tourist buses on the country’s roads and the growth in employment among travel guides, hotel and restaurant staff is thrilling.
It is a source of great pride that the women of Hadassah were pioneers not only in building Israel but also in visiting. For us, going to Israel as often as possible is an expression of the joy and necessity of showing our support. Now that so many others, for so many reasons and from so many places, have joined us, I am more than happy to make room. I have also discovered the perfect solution for avoiding the line outside the best restaurants—reservations.