The new low-cost airlines that recently started flying to Israel are growing and dramatically changing tourism here.
> by Yadin Roman
The influx of new airlines flying to Israel is having a major impact on the country’s changing tourism scene. The main carrier of passengers to and from Israel is still El Al Israel Airlines, which handled about one third of the nearly 15 million passengers who passed through Ben-Gurion International Airport in 2014. However, the companies that showed the largest growth in the number of passengers were the new airlines that started flying to Israel recently. For example, Wizz Air more than doubled the number of passengers that it carried to and from Israel over the past year, reaching over 300,000 passengers in 2014. EasyJet brought over half a million passengers to Israel in 2014, an increase over 50% from 2013. EasyJet actually has become the third largest carrier to and from Israel, following only El Al and Turkish Airlines.
Passenger statistics from 2014 also show a decrease in the number of passengers using legacy carriers, that is, established airlines, and a massive increase in those turning to the new low-cost airlines.
“The new low-cost traveler,” says Roby Herzcowcz, manager of the Israel office of Brussels Airlines, “travels with his hand on his wallet. He will fly through Kiev or Brussels, or take one of the nine daily Turkish Airlines flights to Israel, to get here. However, these travelers are adding a big chunk of additional tourists to Israel that the country hasn’t really understood how to handle or how to market to.”
One of the growth factors in travel to Israel, Herzcowcz says, is the availability of rooms via Airbnb, whose popularity has taken Israel by surprise. Another factor is the many new opportunities to travel to Israel on flights that are not charters flights and with arrangements that are not group arrangements.
Modern travelers look for their own travel arrangements. They sit comfortably at home in front of their computers, compare travel options and destinations, and find different options that appear in a myriad of websites that also can provide comparisons of prices, travel times, or the many different ways to build a travel schedule. These new travelers do not want to be told where to go. They are suspicious and wary of official promotions and want to check things out for themselves. So they surf the internet, check what other people have said about the places that they want to go to, and find new places to visit that do not appear on the “official” tourist trail.
All this points to the need for a different approach in marketing tourism to Israel, Herzcowcz says. The official, ministerial approach is no longer effective. Despite that, the number of travelers to Israel is rising, largely due to these new trends. As the number of tourists grows, it becomes clear that the country is not ready for a large influx of foreign individual travelers (FITs). One of the glaring issues in this is the quantity of passengers that Ben-Gurion International Airport actually can handle. As the numbers continue to grow, it becomes increasingly clear that a new airport is needed. Today one plane either takes off or lands at Ben-Gurion every minute on average. Another issue is that the approach route to Ben-Gurion is over the cities of Tel Aviv, Holon, Rishon Lezion, and Netanya, which are among the most densely populated places in Israel. This means that there are restrictions on using these approaches, such as what times of day planes can use them, in order to control noise pollution. Plans already are progressing to construct housing on one of the last “clear” approaches to the airport, the sands to the south of Rishon Lezion, so in a few years, there will be restriction on when this approach can be used as well.
It is clear that a new airport is needed, especially since Ben-Gurion sits on some of the most expensive real estate in the country. One viable solution is to build the new airport on an artificial island in the sea off Tel Aviv. Planning and executing something like this will take a long time. In the meantime, the combination of a bottled-up airport and restrictions on landing and take-off time will lead the new modern travelers to find somewhere else to visit. The revolution in tourism is already underway; the question is if Israel will be able to rise to this challenge.