The Holy Land

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A Capernaum synagogue.
A Capernaum synagogue.

This year’s first press release from the Israel Ministry of Tourism—dated Jan. 15, 2015—bore the surprising news that 2014 was the best year ever for American tourism to Israel. The announcement was accompanied by figures: The United States is the number one source of tourism to Israel, representing 20 percent of the country’s inbound travelers, and last year, more than 602,000 Americans visited Israel. With the troubles that affected the region during the summer—primarily in Gaza—you couldn’t help thinking: How can this be?

More recently, Recommend had a chance to ask just that question of Uri Steinberg, Israel Tourism Commissioner, North America. “While last year’s increase was modest over 2013, under the circumstances, it is a considerable achievement.” And his explanation was heartfelt: “I believe that many Americans see Israel as a bucket-list, must-see destination, and for them, it is not a matter of ‘if’ we should visit Israel, but ‘when.’”

However, Steinberg points out that, “we do have the task of positioning Israel as a safe destination, although our position nowadays is a bit different. As we all live in a world of trouble spots, Israel is no longer a unique example of danger. We are just part of a bigger problem. At the same time, international tourism figures show that despite this, no one seems to be staying home. Safety is a priority with us, and people feel safe when they’re in Israel.”

Marketing the Israel destination this year, the ministry of tourism is accentuating the positive, and that means a big push on its primary niche: faith-based tourism, which, according to Steinberg, makes up 70 percent of the country’s inbound visitors. About half of those tourists are Christian—Catholic or Evangelical. At the same time he points out that, while some 45 percent of travelers to Israel are Jewish, their reasons for visiting are most often not religious. And, adds Steinberg, “in times of duress in our neighborhood, the culture and leisure traveler who has Israel on his or her bucket list, also has Tuscany and China to choose from. Our leading advantage is the Holy Land, and when safety is a question, the Christian market, whose tours are most often led by priests and pastors, is the most resilient.”

With the increase in travel from the faith-based market, Steinberg is also interested in helping this market expand its itineraries beyond the Holy sites of traditional programs. “We are working with travel planners to add new experiences.” These might include joining a marathon run through Jerusalem, or walking part or all of the Jesus Trail, a 40-mile, well-marked track from Nazareth to Capernaum, which offers pilgrims and tourists alike the chance to experience the same beautiful landscapes and sites of the Galilee where Jesus and his disciples once walked.

Appealing to every visitor, Israel’s big cultural event this summer is the Masada Opera Festival, running with productions of “Tosca” by Giacomo Puccini and conducted by Maestro Daniel Oren, as well as “Carmina Burana” by Carl Orff, conducted by James Judd. The festival will return to the gigantic stage at the foot of Masada, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and open-air performances take place on the first two weekends in June.

And while faith-based travelers may be Israel’s leading source of visitors, Steinberg reports that “the growth in the LGBT market in the last five years is amazing. For this community, Tel Aviv is a top-of-the-list entry as one of the trendiest, have-to-be-there places in the world.” On the calendar this summer is the Tel Aviv Summer Pride Festival, expected to attract 30,000 tourists. This year’s festival will kick off on June 4, featuring events such as the Gay Film Festival, a Gay Expo at the Dizengoff Center and beach parties at Hilton Beach. The highlight will be the Pride Parade, taking place on June 12 and starting at Gan Meir Park and ending in a beach party. The festival wraps up on June 14 with a special bike tour for tourists, which will start in Jaffa.

Steinberg reminds us that in the last 15 years, Israel has developed a very high-end product, offering new five-star hotels and chic boutique properties, a full calendar of visual and performing arts, newly unearthed archaeological sites and state-of-the-art museums, a lively cafe scene, and delicious dining.

“At the same time, Israel is complicated, not a country that travelers can easily book online, one that is tailor-made for a knowledgeable travel advisor,” says Steinberg. “We are making it a priority to double our efforts to educate the travel agent community and give them the tools they need to develop both individual leisure and group travel sales.”

And Steinberg fully appreciates the importance of FAM trips: “Nothing’s as valuable as boots on the ground.”

And one final question for Steinberg: What are three top attractions that you feel American visitors are missing out on. He didn’t have to think twice:

  • Tel Aviv: “It’s not that Americans don’t visit Tel Aviv,” points out Steinberg, “but I feel they don’t spend long enough to understand why The New York Times labeled this cultural capital: ‘Med Cool.’”
  • The Negev: Steinberg hopes that soon more visitors will head for “one of the most fascinating parts of our country, the Negev, once the caravan ground for the Romans, the Arabs, the Crusaders, still a wilderness area open for adventure—outdoor recreation, wildlife and birdwatching, camel trekking, ATV touring—and just a day trip away from Tel Aviv.”
  • Cuisine: “In the last 20 years, Israel’s high-tech leadership has attracted an influx of people from all over, and with it a melting pot of world cuisines,” Steinberg tells us. “We have become both a culinary giant, and harnessing the generous bounty of the land, a leader in the farm-to-market-to-table movement.”

tour talk: a sampler
Backroads: The 7-night Israel Bike Tour is made for all abilities, spending two nights outside Haifa at the Carmel Forest Spa Resort, two nights at Rosh Pina overlooking the Sea of Galilee and the Golan Heights, one night in the Golan Heights at Kibbutz Merom Golan, and two nights at the Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem. Priced from $5,398 pp dbl; departures: Sept. 27, Oct. 11, Nov. 8.

Gate 1 Travel: The 9-night A Journey for the Believer escorted tour includes overnights in Tel Aviv, Tiberias, and Jerusalem at three- and four-star hotels. Among the highlights are visiting Caesarea and Mt. Carmel; a boat ride on the Sea of Galilee; and visiting the Garden of Gethsemane. Several departures monthly to March 16. Priced with most meals from $1,349 pp dbl, land-only.

Globus: Holy Land Discovery, an 8-day escorted tour, spends one night in Tel Aviv, one night in Haifa, two nights in Nazareth (with excursions to Jericho and Bethlehem), and three nights in Jerusalem. Several departures monthly until Dec. 22. Three-star hotels, all breakfasts and four dinners are included in the land cost, from $1,559. Globus offers a full portfolio of faith-based vacations.

Goway: The 4-day Cosmopolitan Tel Aviv allows travelers to truly take in this vibrant city and explore it on their own, with a stay at the Tal Hotel, located near the city’s promenade and within walking distance from the trendy nightclubs, bars and restaurants of the Tel Aviv Port. It’s also close to gorgeous Med beaches and the designer boutiques of Dizengoff Street.

Zoom Vacations: The company has a June 5 departure for its deluxe Gay Israel Tour, designed to explore the history, culture, cuisine and gay nightlife with local guides; it’s timed to be in Tel Aviv during the Gay Pride Festival. The 9-day tour stays at deluxe hotels, with three nights in Jerusalem at the Mamilla Hotel, two nights in the Galilee at the Dan Carmel Haifa Hotel, and three nights in Tel Aviv at the Hilton. The land-only cost is $4,999 pp dbl.

Archived related articles (available on recommend.com/magazine/issue-archive): Morocco: Gem-Filled Destination (October 2014)

contact information
Backroads: (800) 462-2848; backroads.com
Gate 1 Travel: (800) 682-3333; gate1travel.com
Globus: (877) 797-8793; globusfaith.com
Goway: (800) 245-0920; goway.com
Israel Ministry of Tourism: goisrael.com
Zoom Vacations: (773) 772-9666; zoomvacations.com