|Akko’s Old City, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, boasts the spectacular Hospitaller Fortress and underground tunnels to explore.|
In a time when many destinations in the Middle East are experiencing turbulence, Israel stands out as a beacon of stability. As a travel destination, it is witnessing ever-increasing visitor numbers. In fact, 2010 was the country’s best year ever, with nearly 3.5 million tourists arriving from around the world. Better than one in every six of these visitors–about 625,000–came from the U.S., making it Israel’s largest international tourism market.
“It’s amazing because, in spite of whatever people are thinking—or hearing—about the Middle East, more people are traveling to Israel than ever before,” Eliezer Hod, consul and director of the Western Region, U.S., for the Israel Ministry of Tourism (IMOT; www.goisrael.com), tells Travel Agent. “People now feel that they are in safe hands when they arrive in Israel.”
Given Israel’s centuries-old history and its ties to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it’s not surprising that more and more travelers continue to go there, especially for religious pilgrimages. Hod says that the majority of Americans visit Israel primarily for religious purposes. But, he adds, there’s much more to discover, from new archaeological finds and adrenaline-inducing sports to luxury accommodations and epicurean experiences.
In Israel, it’s not uncommon for archaeologists to unearth new treasures. “There are new discoveries being made every single day,” says Susan Weissberg, an Israel travel specialist and president and CEO of Wyllys Professional Travel in Coral Gables, Fla. Just last month, for example, a team of archaeologists in Jerusalem’s Ophel Park discovered a wall that dates to the 10th century BC and which confirms Biblical depictions of wealth and grandeur associated with the periods of David and Solomon.
Among other lesser-known sites that archaeology buffs would enjoy are the rebel caves in the foothills surrounding Jerusalem, clustered around the ancient city of Beit Gurvin, as well as those found in the Galilee region. These labyrinthine networks of under-ground caves were built by ancient Jewish rebels fending off attacks from the Roman Empire and, today, it is possible for tourists to explore these caves firsthand.
Weissberg, who specializes in selling travel to Israel, says that a great number of her clients are traveling to Israel not only for religious purposes, but also for archaeological and historical motives. It’s part of an increasing trend she has seen among her clients, many of whom yearn for off-the-beaten path adventures along with the traditional sites for which Israel is known.
Adventure tourism in Israel is one aspect that many are still not aware of, but Weissberg believes that notion, too, is changing. She cites the immense popularity of this year’s Jerusalem Marathon. “Adventure tourism has definitely been a game changer,” she says. “Israel now provides ziplining, ATVs, rappelling, rock climbing and river rafting—you name it and you can find it in Israel.”
|The rebel caves clustered around the ancient city of Beit Gurvin are a delight for archaeology buffs.|
James R. Berkeley, president of Beverly Hills-based wholesaler Destinations & Adventures International, says that he advises many of his clients to hike to the ruins of Gamla in Israel’s Golan Heights region. “It’s not as well-known as Masada, but it’s spectacular,” Berkeley adds. “The hike there is a very moderate one.” Upon reaching the site of the ruins, travelers find themselves surrounded by epic views, as well as thousands of years of history and culture.
While hiking through Israel has long been a popular pastime for many travelers, cycling has recently grown in popularity with the establishment of new trails, including the Mountain Bike Trail around the Sea of Galilee.
IMOT is currently in the middle of a five-year plan that will create more than 3,100 miles of biking trails throughout the country.
More Luxury, More Options
Just as the demand for more rugged outdoor experiences has grown, so too have the demands for upscale luxuries. The Mamilla Hotel in Jerusalem and the Beresheet–Mitspe Ramon in the Negev desert are new luxury additions to the country’s hotel landscape. In March 2012, Israel will welcome its first Ritz-Carlton property in Herzliya, a coastal suburb of Tel Aviv. In November 2012, the country’s first Waldorf Astoria hotel will debut in Jerusalem.
Israel isn’t just welcoming more luxury properties. IMOT hopes to see five million tourists annually by 2014, and has developed a hotel strategy that will add more than 14,000 new guest rooms by 2014.
And as more and more tourists are expected to arrive in Israel, they can explore a wider variety of tourism opportunities, in addition to visiting Israel’s rich array of holy sites and experiences. Both Weissberg and Berkeley note that they have seen increasing client demands for tours that include exploration of the sites of Kabbalah, a form of ancient Jewish mysticism, and they have since included Tzfat—as the city of Safed is known in Hebrew—in many of their customized itineraries.
The advent of more cruise stops in Israel has also boosted tourist numbers. Weissberg says that for many of her clients, a two- or three-day extension in Israel has often been the highlight of their cruise vacations.
More discerning, epicurean tourists are also discovering the country’s growing reputation for world-class wines with wine tours and tastings in the Golan Heights region, which is home to a number of wineries that are open to visitors. The country’s modern mix of eclectic cuisines and cultures, too, is drawing foodies from around the world.
Always Something New
For such a small country, Israel continues to enthrall both new and returning tourists with new experiences. “Israel is not very big, but we have so many sites to visit,” says IMOT’s Hod. “You can move from one place to another very easily, and there are so many places that many travelers have yet to visit.”
Hod cites the old cities of Jaffa and Akko as two such examples. Jaffa, which is just outside of Tel Aviv, has a glimpse into an ancient port city while the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Akko is simply stunning for its rich history, including ancient underground tunnels that visitors can explore firsthand. Berkeley often recommends that his clients visit the Druze villages in the Golan Heights. The Druze, a religious minority, possess their own unique culture and are known for their generosity and hospitality.
So, no matter what your clients are seeking, says Hod, they are bound to find it in Israel.