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July 1, 2020 4:06 am
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Amid Coronavirus, Israelis Seek Travel Within

avatar by Eliana Rudee / JNS.org

Opinion

Israel’s Negev area. Photo: Ramat Negev Regional Council.

JNS.orgIsraelis love family, they love the beach, they love parties, and they love Bamba snacks. But most of all, Israelis love to travel. They can be found traveling all around the world — in Europe (especially cities with Primark stores), as well as in western Asia and Australia. After their army service, young Israelis are known to travel abroad for several weeks or even months, often to India, Vietnam, and South America. They seek affordable travel and off-the-beaten-track places.

Middle-class Israeli families look for kid-friendly destinations, and with the expansion of discount airlines often look outside of Israel because of the high cost of traveling within it.

Even before coronavirus, Israel was consistently ranked in recent years among the most expensive countries in the world, especially for locals. Now, as COVID-19 has nearly halted air travel and citizens emerge from lockdown, they are flocking to water-accessible areas such as the Dead Sea, the Kinneret, and Eilat. They are also looking forward to the target date of August 1 for the opening of Israeli tourism to “green” countries with low coronavirus infection rates, such as Greece and Cyprus.

However, as Israel’s increasing coronavirus morbidity rate may hinder that target date, the country’s tourism industry is eager to promote domestic sightseeing, which represents more than 50% of the tourism market, making NIS 12 billion per year (nearly $3.5 billion).

Ministry of Tourism spokesperson Anat Shihor-Aronson told JNS of a new campaign to “encourage Israelis to go out and consume, eat, visit attractions, and go on tours by offering free tours with licensed guides through the port authority.”

Various Israeli cities have also made plans to incentivize internal tourism, receiving special grants from the government. This week, the city of Tiberias was allocated NIS 50 million ($14.5 million) to encourage the construction and expansion of hotels, which should eventually increase competition and lower prices.

Israelis, however, have recently reported that prices have actually gone up since hotels reopened to make up for the revenue lost during the coronavirus.

As a student studying to become a tour guide, Daniella Berger, 26, talked of picking a vacation locale “mainly based on price,” with cheap accommodations and food, and a variety of activities, including beaches, mountains, scuba-diving, vibrant cities, and culture.

Though acknowledging that she “absolutely loves” Israel, she reported that it is “definitely expensive for both Israelis and non-Israelis,” with the exception of public transportation and entry to national park sites.

“I went snowboarding in Bulgaria for four days,” she related. “Including the flight, I paid the same amount to fly to Bulgaria, snowboard for four days, eat out most meals, and get drinks for the same price that I would have paid for two days on the Hermon — and the ski area on the Hermon is significantly smaller.”

“And if the choice is between scuba-diving in Eilat or in the Sinai, I would choose the Sinai because it’s literally half the price. If it were cheaper in Eilat, maybe I would choose that more often,” continued Berger. “For Israelis and for anyone else from countries with slightly weaker currencies, the prices are honestly crazy.”

“I’ll probably vacation more in Israel because of COVID,” she acknowledges, “but only because I don’t have a choice. As soon as I can travel again, I’m getting straight on a plane.”

Yaron Zerbib, who before the coronavirus worked for a tourism agency in Jerusalem, said that with the added 17% VAT for Israelis, in addition to an already expensive industry, he understands “why Israelis would go to Cyprus or Greece.”

However, he stated, the prices make sense because demand is still high.

“El Al and Israeli hotels are pricing their services that high simply because they can. They know that no matter what, they will have full [capacity] and even overbooking most of the year. It’s the simple law of supply and demand,” he maintained. But now with the coronavirus halting foreign travel and wreaking havoc on the industry, Zerbib said that perhaps hotels will take this into account when creating new pricing structures for internal tourism.

Though the Ministry of Tourism can try to encourage businesses in the industry to decrease their prices, with a free market, there is nothing they can do to drop prices other than increase the market to encourage competition, said Shihor-Aronson.

Yuda Widawsky, 35, who cares mostly about “service, cleanliness, food, amenities, and spa services,” told JNS that “it’s all about price and value,” something he believes Israeli tourism lacks. Other than phone rentals and food, he added, “I think Israel, in general, is very expensive for both Israelis and for tourists.”

Though noting that he would love to travel more in Israel, especially because of accessibility to kosher food, “the amount we pay for one night in an Israeli hotel is the same price for three nights, including airfare, in Europe. During peak season, these numbers are much greater.”

As the start-up nation with an up-and-coming travel-tech industry, Israelis are beginning to think outside the box when it comes to offering lower-priced travel options. Haifa-based company Pruvo developed software to help customers book hotel rooms at the lowest possible prices, also notifying and allowing customers to re-book when there is a price drop.

Tel Avivians Jason Kipp, Daniel Gindis, and Daniel Elbogen founded Master Campers in response to high price of travel for Israelis. The three men launched the community three years ago after understanding that Israelis wanted a vacation option without several hours of travel, even more hours of planning, and needing to spend too much money or take off work. Offering affordable, all-inclusive Shabbat and kosher-observant camping trips in Israel, the vacations combine nature, socializing, five meals, and activities.

Additionally, pod-style hotels are becoming more popular among budget travelers, with several opening in Israel last year and more to come. The Japanese concept is trending globally for budget vacationers.

In Tel Aviv, WOM Allenby by Brown Hotels became Israel’s first boutique hostel with private and stylish pod rooms. Pod options range from a single pod ($47 per night), to twin pods ($72 per night), and a king pod ($73 per night) for couples. Other, less expensive pods are available at The Spot near the Tel Aviv Port, which costs just $48 including breakfast. In Jerusalem, Capsule Inn launched with 12 single ($29 per night) and six double pods ($52).

In Israel’s south, Tsavta Tube Hostel boasts outdoor pods under the stars.

Also in the Negev Desert, Chan Hashayarot near the Ramon Crater (Makhtesh Ramon) offers inexpensive Bedouin tents for lodging. Featuring traditional Bedouin hospitality around the fire with storyteller Sheikh Salem, visitors learn about the Bedouin way of life and desert customs while participating in the famous Bedouin coffee ceremony — suitable for families and single travelers alike. For less than $40, an adult traveler can sleep in a Bedouin tent (breakfast included) with add-ons such as a cabin for sleeping (rather than under the heated tent in a sleeping bag), a traditional (kosher) Bedouin dinner, and camel rides.

Eliana Rudee is a contributor to the Franklin Center for Government & Public Integrity. She is a graduate of Scripps College, where she studied International Relations and Jewish Studies. Follow her @ellierudee.

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