Statistics culled by EL AL Airlines and Israel's tourism office reflect the fact that the idea of traveling back to the origins of Jewish faith and culture seem to be appealing to people from all age groups and demographics.
Offer Gat, CEO of EL AL for North and Central America, says the increase in travel to Israel in the past year figures to be about 22 percent worldwide and 25 percent from the United States, surpassing 2008-09 statistics.
"Religion, family gatherings and history continue to be big reasons why people are coming," says Gat. "The Israel experience has grown to include things beyond those traditional reasons, such as our mild climate and beach-resort offerings, with sands that are softer than in many other places."
According to Michal Itzik, Israel Ministry of Tourism director for the U.S. Northeast Region, as well as the website GoIsrael.com, 2008 was Israel's best year ever.
Though the down economy of 2009 foretold a trend of less international travel, Israel enjoyed its second best year for tourism on record.
"We were only down by 13 percent from 2008, a real achievement given the economic circumstances worldwide," she explains. For 2010, they expected a "return to growth" — and they got it.
"Our numbers are at 470,000 from North America right now (through August), 15 percent more than the same time last year. Another record was set for travel to Israel between January and August 2010 with the arrival of 2.2 million tourists, a 30 percent increase compared to the same period last year, and 10 percent greater than 2008.
"Right now, we receive about 700,000 travelers from North America per year to Israel. Our goal by 2015 is to reach 1 million tourists from North America to Israel," a goal now even more likely.
Like Gat, Itzik recognizes that while many North American Jews journey to Israel to discover Jewish history and their place in it, they are staying longer or making multiple visits upon recognizing Israel as a destination where they can find a little bit of everything.
"Many Americans visiting Israel are showing an appreciation for the religious sites from a historic and artistic perspective," she says.
And entertainment? "Tel Aviv is now a sophisticated 24-7 city with shopping, culture, cafes, bars and restaurants on a par with other international capitals.
"Adventure tourism opportunities abound in Israel, from hiking and biking to kayaking, rafting, rappelling and other outdoor activities. We're especially strong with kid-friendly activities and attractions that appeal to multigenerational groups," says Itzik.
Moreover, hopping Tel Aviv has just been ranked No. 3 on LonelyPlanet.com's Top Ten Cities to Visit for 2011.
"More and more travelers to Israel discover they can visit our country many times, and have a distinctly different experience with every trip," explains Gat, "even if they visit family members or repeat visits to some of their favorite results. We believe we are just beginning to scratch the surface of what Israeli tourism can offer."
Green Gets Them
Many visitors are also discovering — or rediscovering — that Israel is one of the most environmentally conscious nations on earth.
"Though green tourism is considered a new trend, we're celebrating 100 years of green tourism in Israel this year, counting from the establishment of the first kibbutz in the Galilee area forward," says Itzik. And "we have more planted trees per capita in the past 100 years than any other nation."
Israel will also be the first country to launch a fully electric car that will run exclusively on battery power. The company that developed it has a visitor's center open where tourists can see how this technology came to be, and test drive the vehicle.
She also points to "the Ayalon-Ariel Sharon Park, transformed from Israel's biggest trash dump site to a recycling center in a beautiful setting."
Itzik further explains that there are many organic farms open for visitors with innovative cultivation technology across the country, as well as artisanal dairy farms and other facilities where travelers can have the experience of farming and even taking cooking lessons.
"Voluntourism" is also on the rise in Israel; a traveler can lend a hand in everything from architectural digs and house building to working with children in need.
Meanwhile, Gat notes that EL AL and the Jewish National Fund are in the midst of a successful joint tree-planting program in Israel. Anyone who purchases a round-trip ticket from North America to Israel on www.elal.com will have a tree planted in his or her honor in Israel.
He adds that "another thing that has helped boost tourism is the wine industry, which has expanded more than ten-fold in the last decade."
According to Gat, the United States remains the biggest source of tourism to Israel, which explains recent alliances between EL AL and other U.S. carriers.
Agreements with American Airlines and Jet Blue, he says, will ensure easier access to EL AL's gateway cities, such as Philadelphia.