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Record numbers of tourists visit Israel in 2012

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New glass entrance greets guests at the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel.

Despite dire warnings of imminent conflict between Israel and Iran, foreign tourists ignored the spectre of nuclear Armageddon and flocked to the Holy Land in record numbers in 2012.

According to Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, the Jewish calendar year 5772 was the “best tourism year ever,” with more than 3.5 million visitors spending at least one day in the Holy Land.

Within the context of the secular calendar year, from January 2012 until the end of September, a new record of 2.6 million visitor arrivals was registered, seven per cent more than the same period last year and six per cent more than the previous record in 2010. Of these arrivals, 2.2 million were tourists, four per cent more than the same period last year, and 444,000 were one-day visitors, 27 per cent more than last year. The Ministry of Tourism anticipates that the total number of visitors to Israel by the end of December will mimic the Jewish calendar year’s record-setting statistics.

The impressive numbers caught the ministry and hotel industry executives by surprise. “At the end of the day, the statistics are surprising, because the original tourism industry forecast for 2012 was that incoming tourism would decline due to the repercussions of the Arab Spring in the region, as well as the Iranian threat,” said Uri Steinberg, a spokesperson for the Ministry of Tourism’s marketing department.

“What we discovered was that the lure of foreign tourism to Israel was much more resilient than we thought. Can you imagine what the numbers would have been had there been no ripple effects in the region from the Arab Spring?”

A Ministry of Tourism survey of incoming tourists conducted last year found that there was a substantial increase in the numbers North American Jewish tourists who visited Israel, Steinberg added. “The increasing trend of North American Jews visiting Israel is influenced by friends and neighbours and not by the mass media, which has not painted a positive picture of the situation in and around Israel.”

In the coming months, in order to take advantage of the word-of-mouth positive experiences, the ministry will launch a marketing campaign based on the concept of ‘friends inviting friends’ to visit Israel. “We are taking nothing for granted,” Steinberg said.

Israeli hotel executives and Steinberg are cautiously optimistic that the success of 2012 will carry into 2013. Based on a random survey of some of the top hotels in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, bookings for the forthcoming fall and winter tourism seasons remain strong.

Tel Aviv, which has a pulsating round-the-clock Mediterranean lifestyle, has resonated with Hollywood celebrities, such as Emmy Award-winning actor Claire “Homeland” Danes, who recently posed for a fashion photo shoot in Tel Aviv for the New York Times’ fashion magazine. She told late-night TV talk-show host Conan O’Brian that Tel Aviv was one of the most “intense” party towns she had ever visited. The Port of Tel Aviv is renowned for its trendy bars and dance clubs.

 “As Tel Aviv is also considered the commercial centre of Israel, there is still a very strong market for business travellers from North America and the U.K., even during the winter months, with many conventions, corporate meetings, etc.,” said Jean-Louis Ripoche, general manager of the five-star Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel. “There are also many tourists who come from the U.K. to Tel Aviv for long weekends during the winter in order to escape from the cold weather back home, so they can enjoy the sea and sun in Tel Aviv. For them, 70 degrees in January is considered warm!”

In Jerusalem, Alex Herman, the vice-president of sales and marketing at the Inbal Jerusalem Hotel, which was recently tabbed by the globe-trotting readers of Condé Nast Traveler magazine, as being one of the top five hotels in the Middle East, said that the City of Gold’s crisp, fresh air and lack of crowds makes it a great locale for a winter getaway. “During the fall and winter months, the hotel features conventions, organizational gatherings [such as the recent Hadassah Centennial mission], not to mention the Jewish and Christian holiday seasons, as well as winter vacationers who come from the U.S.A. and Canada to visit their kids in the local yeshivas and seminaries,” said Herman. “The hotel features winter-themed attractions, which could include special treatments in our spa, new culinary offerings in our restaurant or local tours of the city that revolve around a holiday theme.”

Several Israeli hotel chains also offer a variety of deals in the Dead Sea region, where large numbers of European, Russian and North American tourists seek to escape from the chilly weather back home in order to bathe in the warm, healing waters of the Dead Sea.

Following is an abridged list of winter deals offered by some of Israel’s finest hotels:

• Inbal Jerusalem Hotel (www.inbalhotel.com): The hotel is continuing its free rental-car program. The Hertz promotion features a free car for guests who stay three consecutive nights  (terms and conditions apply). There are also advance purchase (booking) rates available during various periods, when tourists receive up to a 20 per cent discount on rates – full prepayment required and non-cancellable. The hotel features a heated indoor pool and a state-of-the-art health club. During the fall and winter months, the hotel’s award-winning chef, Moti Buchbut, preps a series of new culinary experiences in the Sofia Restaurant.

• Dan Hotels (www.danhotels.com):

Dan Tel Aviv is offering a special seven-nights rate from the first night of booking. The deal runs from Nov. 15 to Jan. 7, 2013. It is valid for the following room categories: standard, deluxe, deluxe, with use of King David Crown Lounge; Executive Sea View Rooms.

Dan Panorama Tel Aviv has a promotion from Nov. 25 to Feb. 28, (excluding Dec. 23 to Jan. 1) with special rates for guests staying a minimum of two nights.

Dan Panorama Jerusalem and Dan Boutique are offering special rates from Nov. 15 to 24. The Dan Jerusalem recently opened a renovated fifth floor, adding another 46 rooms to the 31 rooms, which were also renovated on the sixth floor.

• Sheraton Tel Aviv Hotel (www.sheratontelaviv.com): The hotel is offering a “Winter Pamper” package from Nov. 16 to March 2, 2013. The deal is based on a minimum four consecutive night stay in a Deluxe Room. The package features a daily buffet breakfast and a 50-minute massage per person, per stay. Rates: single $300 (all figures in Cdn dollars); double $320; supplement for Club Room, $45; supplement for Tower Room, $90 The hotel also features one of the best kosher restaurants in Tel Aviv. The Olive Leaf offers a French Mediterranean menu prepared by renowned chef Charlie Fadida.

• Rimonim Hotels (www.rimonim.com): This growing hotel chain is offering a “Discover & Drive” package. Tourists can combine their stay at any of the participating Rimonim hotels with a Hertz rental car. A group “E” vehicle for the duration of the vacation is available at a variety of Hertz locations, allowing you to explore Israel from north to south, including the Dead Sea, Ramon Crater and Eilat regions. Tourists are encouraged to include their preferred car pickup location in their reservation remarks. Tourists who book this package are also entitled to free parking at a Rimonim Hotel (except Rimonim Optima in Ramat Gan).

• Isrotel (www.isrotel.com): The chain recently reintroduced its newly renovated Isrotel Ganim Hotel. Located on the shores of the Dead Sea and only a 90-minute drive from Jerusalem, the Ganim is the only hotel that features two indoor Dead Sea-water pools. The spa offers a variety of treatments, including massage, mud treatments, shiatsu, reflexology and cosmetic, as well as a hotel salon. Reservations are being taken for the hotel chain’s newest “jewel in the crown”– the Royal Beach Tel Aviv. In May 2013, the Royal Beach Tel Aviv will be integrated into Isrotel’s exclusive collection of five-star luxury-class hotels, which includes the renowned Royal Beach Eilat and the Beresheet and Carmel Forest hotels. The 230-room facility is located opposite Tel Aviv’s beach-front promenade, with each impeccably designed room overlooking the Mediterranean and urban landscape of Tel Aviv.

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