NEW YORK – Tourism Minister Haim Katz recently visited New York City, thanking the people there – Israel’s biggest supporter of travel – and promoting further tourism and investment in the industry.
In his first visit to an Israel Government Tourism Office outside of the country, Katz shared promising news about travel to Israel as he addressed a group of travel industry professionals, real estate investors, diplomats, Jewish organization leaders and friends of Israel at a reception at JNF headquarters in Manhattan’s Upper East Side.
“In 2019, more than a million tourists visited Israel from the United States,” he said. “And in the first quarter of 2023, there was an increase of 10% over 2019. It was the best year ever for incoming tourism to Israel. I am sure this trend will continue.”
According to Eyal Carlin, consul commissioner for North America, 40% of Israel tourism comes from the US.
Once tourists come to Israel for an initial visit, Katz wants them to return.
“Our goal is not just to bring people to Israel, but to make them want to come back.”
Katz emphasized Israel’s desirability as a tourist destination. “Our regional reality is changing. We are working hard to maintain peace with our neighbors.” Katz reassured the audience that “Israel is stronger than ever” and praised its ongoing friendship with the United States. “The US is a good friend and partner.”
The 75-year-old minister noted that tourists can visit Israel’s important attractions – and get a sense of the diversity housed within a state the size of New Jersey – in a 10-day visit. He rattled off must-see attractions and cities including Masada and the Dead Sea, Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Golan Heights and the Galilee/Kinneret (Sea of Galilee).
“You can see many things and experience culinary – kosher – [delights] all within an hour or two drive. There are more than 80 national parks and more than 400 nature preserves. You can see the whole country by driving for eight hours.”
He is also a big fan of Israeli breakfasts, which he was quick to point out are included in most hotels in the country. He smiled and said that this is in contrast to what he has experienced on his stay in New York, where breakfast comes at an additional cost.
Katz is particularly attuned to hotels in Israel. In addition, he hopes to soon make things easier for hotel developers.
“With increasing numbers of visitors, Israel is working to build more hotels at a faster rate to meet the needs of different travelers including family, religious, luxury travelers, and others – while also being mindful of sustainability and environmental practices.”
Katz is pleased with the range of options and points out the increasing popularity of glamping.
He also proudly referenced such high-end options as Six Senses Shaharut, a 60-suite resort in the Negev Desert 65 km. from Ramon International Airport and 80 km. from the beaches of Eilat. Suites run more than $1,000/night.
The minister acknowledged concerns about hotel costs but noted the associated costs of kosher travel and hotel security.
Hotels from concept to construction
Katz explained that a major reason for the lack of new hotels in Israel is the very long time it takes from concept to construction.
“Today, it takes seven to 12 years to build a new hotel. I am addressing the bureaucracy and regulations to cut the time it takes to build a new hotel,” he said, noting that the entire process takes only four years in Greece.
He is also working hard to make sure that entering Israel at Ben-Gurion Airport is a pleasant experience for everyone. He noted an increase in tourism from Japan now that Israel began offering direct flights to Tokyo in March.
“Today, it takes seven to 12 years to build a new hotel. I am addressing the bureaucracy and regulations to cut the time it takes to build a new hotel.”
“We are addressing cultural differences,” said Katz, adding that balancing security needs with politeness is always important. “We offer seminars for our agents.”
Katz said Japanese people generally don’t respond well to the method of direct questioning by Israeli security, and to agents looking in their luggage. He offered that such culturally sensitive practices are part of a larger effort to attract tourists from countries such as China.
“You are the first face of Israel that they see,” he said he explained to the security personnel.
He also touted new sites and attractions that continue to be available to tourists.
As an example, the government recently approved a budget of NIS 32 million ($8.8m.) for the restoration and development of the Sebastia, the archaeological site near Nablus. Sebastia was reportedly founded by Israelite King Omri in the 9th century BCE and it served as the capital of the northern Israelite kingdom.
Katz said Israel is filled with historical sites including many in the West Bank.
“We will be putting Judea and Samaria back on the tourism map.”