Despite Turmoil, Tourists Flock to Israel

Already in 2008, 1 million travelers have visited the Holy Land, undeterred by conflict and drawn by the history and natural beauty

Perpetual conflict and the looming threat of terrorism might keep less adventuresome travelers away, but when it comes to Israel, the number of sightseers is rising fast. Nearly 1 million tourists arrived in the Holy Land during the first four months of 2008, an increase of 43% year-on-year, according to the Israel Tourism Ministry. The country hopes to attract 2.8 million visitors this year for its 60th anniversary; about the same number came in 2000 before the Palestinian intifada that began in late September of that year.

The fighting, which lasted until 2004, suppressed tourism, as did the war with Lebanon in the summer of 2006. But even during times of hardship, committed supporters—especially Christian pilgrims and Jews from the U.S. and Europe—have continued to flock to Israel. About 1 million visitors went there in 2002, during the peak of the most recent intifada.

Ancient religious and archeological sites abound in Israel, but so do pristine beaches, nature reserves, architectural wonders, haute cuisine, dance and theater troupes, world-class orchestras, and museums, of which there are more per capita than in any other country in the world. Not bad for a country of 7 million and the size of New Jersey. Israel boasts five UNESCO World Heritage sites, including a cluster of 4,000 Bauhaus-style buildings in Tel Aviv and the ancient desert fortress of Masada, as well as the therapeutic Dead Sea, the world-renowned Baha'i gardens, and even ski slopes.

Surging Interest and Development

The current period of calm that has attracted leisure tourists from as far as China and Korea is attributed in part to the controversial "separation barrier" Israel is erecting to shut out the West Bank. Begun in 2002, the wall is about two-thirds complete and is credited by supporters with bringing the number of suicide bombings in Israel down from a peak of 59 in 2002 to just one in 2007 and one in February of this year. Both of those were likely committed by militants who entered the country from Egypt via the Sinai Desert, not from the West Bank.

After falling 4.5% in 2006 due to the war with Lebanon, travel to Israel surged 25% last year, to 2.3 million visitors, and contributed about $3.5 billion to the economy. Nearly one-quarter of visitors hailed from the U.S. In March, Delta Air Lines (DAL) began daily service to Tel Aviv from New York, adding to the daily flights it already ran from Atlanta. Continental Airlines (CAL) operates two daily flights from New York; El Al Airlines (ELAL) offers up to six daily flights from the U.S.; and another Israeli carrier, Israir, flies up to five times weekly from New York to Tel Aviv.

Europeans, too, come in droves, often to escape the winter chill at the Red Sea resort of Eilat. The French made up the second-largest tourist group in 2007, with nearly 250,000 visitors, followed by Russians, Britons, and Germans. The Israel Tourism Ministry hopes to draw 5 million visitors per year by 2012, prompting the construction of new hotels in and near sightseeing hot spots including Jerusalem and the Sea of Galilee.

You may want to check out the main attractions before it gets too crowded. For a virtual tour, see our slide show.

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