Tel Aviv – If Jerusalem is where you go to pray and Tel Aviv is where you go to stay, then the tourists seem to be gaining on the religious zealots here on the “Hill of Spring.”
Increasingly visitors are taking what today is a 50-minute ride down from the ancient walls where Jesus once walked to Tel Aviv, one of the hippest Old Cities in the Middle East. And when a high-speed, 30-minute rail line next year replaces the 37 miles of highway that connect Israel’s ancient and modern capitals, the number is guaranteed to grow.
Forbes recently called Tel Aviv “the destination of the year” and “Israel’s coolest city.” And insiders say it increasingly is drawing travelers looking for a little more fun and adventure than Jerusalem has to offer.
“I have seen an uptick in adventure tourism travel to Israel and Jordan in the past few years,” says Yvette Shaqir of the Travel Boutique in Columbia, MD, who lived in Tel Aviv and considers herself something of an Israel specialist. “I have had more tourist/adventure requests this year than religious group requests.”
In fact, she has a group traveling to Israel in October to go white water rafting, bird watching and scuba diving, staying at the Melody in Tel Aviv for four nights.
“I would say there are more requests to stay in Tel Aviv and an excitement about exploring the city than I have seen in years past,” Shaqir said. “Clients love the beach, the new offerings of restaurants, the shopping and of course the nightlife.”
Jean Newman Glock agreed. She has been getting three or four questions a week for the past two months about Israel and Jordan, including two travelers just last week who wanted to spend three nights in Jerusalem and three nights in Tel Aviv. A former Travel+Leisure A-list specialist on the Middle East, Glock said “this is an increase over previous months.”
Ed-Ventures also is seeing an increase in interest in Israel this year, said Debra Ruzbasan. “We've always had a few groups per year, but this year the interest is even higher.”
And Insight Vacations CEO Ulla Hefel Bohler said that “after a few challenging years the Middle East has bounced back nicely this year with double-digit growth across the region, with Israel and Jordan seeing particularly strong demand.”
Tel Aviv hotels check in
Meanwhile, at the InterContinental David Tel Aviv, general manager David Cohen says a lucky draw (or perhaps a hand from on high?) landed his property in what has become one of the hottest areas of Tel Aviv, Neve Tzedek, “the Oasis of Justice.”
One of the first neighborhoods outside the ancient port city of Jaffa, on the southern tip of Tel Aviv’s Mediterranean seashore, its combination of 19th century architecture, tree-lined streets safe to walk at night, and modern cafes and shops gives it a hip and arty vibe. And as home to the Israeli stock exchange, the area around Rothschild Boulevard has become Israel’s financial district, a neighborhood “more expensive than Central Park South, at $40,000 per square meter,” Cohen told TMR over breakfast at the Manta Ray, a short stroll away down Banana Beach.
That’s all conducive to the types of personalized excursions today’s travelers want, Cohen said. Recent groups have traveled to Yad Vashem and chatted with Holocaust survivors, or breakfasted with Shimon Perez. One group gave out shopping carts and had guests stroll through the outdoor market and talk to the shop owners about wine and vegetables. And since the 555-room, five-star Intercontinental is across the street from the beach, meeting attendees can pack up their briefcases at 5:00 and be dipping their feet in the Mediterranean by 5:15.
The InterContinental, which was named the top Israeli hotel of 2016 by the World Travel Awards, recently has renovated seven of its 22 floors, including its Club Rooms, two of its Royal Suites and its Tel Aviv Suite, and added a new room category, Executive Premium Rooms.
The native-Israeli 13-property Dan Hotel chain also has upgraded its Tel Aviv property, the Dan Accadia on nearby Herzilyah beach, as part of a multimillion renovation project to upgrade the main lobby, guestrooms, VIP lounge and bars in multiple hotels.
And new high-end boutique properties are sprouting, including the Poli House, housed in a “meticulously restored Bauhaus architecture-style building, that boasts 40 city-savvy rooms and suites created by designer and starchitect Karim Rashid.”
In the air, meanwhile, service to Tel Aviv, home to Israel’s main international airport, also is increasing, and new competition is forcing down prices as well.
El Al, the national airline, recently purchased 16 Dreamliner airbuses for medium to long-haul flights, announced new routes from Boston and Sao Paolo, and a partnership with Porter Airlines that allows passengers to connect in Newark.
Cathay Pacific has doubled its service to Tel Aviv, from three flights a week to six, and this month Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced the inauguration of service from Delhi and Mumbai. EasyJet is adding flights to Venice and Naples; Air Canada has added a route to Montreal.
Terrorist troubles in Europe, the Israeli reputation for cutting-edge security, and increasingly friendly relations between Israel and its more peacefully inclined Arab neighbors have combined to make Israel seem a relatively safe destination in an unsafe world.
(Editor’s note: And indeed, safety is in the eye of the beholder. When I mentioned to a group of Israelis where I was from, they said, “How can you live in New York? It’s so dangerous there!”)
And in a recent poll by the Smith Institute, 52% of Israelis said they were apprehensive about traveling to Paris, Berlin, or Istanbul.
Meanwhile, travel suppliers say they are seeing an increase in visitors to, and interest in, Israel this year. IATA reported that Middle East carriers had the strongest regional annual traffic growth for the fifth year in a row, and the Israel Ministry of Tourism said April 2017 saw the highest-ever number of incoming tourists since the state was established in 1948.
“Our travelers are making an important statement with continued bookings to the Middle East,” James Thornton, CEO of Intrepid Travel, said in an interview in a Condé Nast Traveler article entitled American travel To The Middler East Is Growing. “They acknowledge that travel in the Middle East is not defined by a single country or experience, and they are using travel to create a greater understanding of the world we all share.” Intrepid has tripled its number of small-group tours following 70% growth in U.S. bookings to Egypt, Israel and Jordan this year, he said.
The cutting-edge security, combined with a Westernized culture that makes Americans feel at home in the middle of the Middle East, likely also plays a role in drawing celebrities to Israel. Axl Rose is bringing Guns n Roses and a 70-person entourage to 40 suites at the Dan Tel Aviv, including the $3,800-a-night soundproof Royal Suite, which also this summer served as home to Justin Bieber, Britney Spears and Steven Tyler.