Y2K fears are expected to keep throngs of visitors, notably Christians, from ringing in the New Year in the official destination of the millennium. So acknowledges Israel’s commissioner for tourism in North America, Arie Sommer, despite a fare war on flights to Israel, special hotel discounts and a gala New Year’s Eve party that are expected to draw a record number of visitors to the Jewish state this year and appreciably more next year.
Israel’s expectation that millions of Christians would flood the country to celebrate the Year 2000’s arrival will not materialize, he said.
As a result, the completion of a new transit processing facility at Ben-Gurion Airport has been postponed from Dec. 31 to March.
In turn, Israel has lowered its estimate on the number of visitors to the Jewish state in 2000. Officials now believe the total will be closer to 3.5 million rather than the 4 million originally expected.
“That’s a good number,” Sommer said of the lower figure. “We’ll be able to accommodate everybody without infrastructure problems.”
Many of the tourists are expected to be Christians, for whom the new millennium holds special significance because it marks the 2,000th birthday of Jesus of Nazareth. Israel has proclaimed itself the official destination of the millennium.
Sommer said the key to accommodating next year’s record crowds is ensuring that they are spread out over the year, which appears to be happening. Tourism officials had been concerned that millions would flock to Israel during the last weeks of 1999 to usher in the New Year.
But fears of Y2K problems have led to many group cancellations during the last two weeks of December and the first two weeks of January, Sommer observed.
“We will not have the traffic jams [that were feared],” he said. “It appears tourists will come throughout the year, which will be better.”
On March 23, Pope John Paul II is scheduled to make a long-awaited visit to Israel — the first papal trip since 1965. He is expected to visit Jerusalem, Bethlehem and Nazareth during his two or three days in the area.
“That will be a good time for pilgrims to come,” said Sommer. “But we don’t believe those from the U.S. will come at the same time the Pope is there. The Church hierarchy and Catholic leadership will be there, but tourists will follow in his footsteps in the months to come.”
Vatican officials have warned that a plan by the Israeli government to build a mosque near a shrine in Jesus’ boyhood home of Nazareth could hinder plans for the Pope’s visit, but the bishop of Nazareth, Giacinto Boulos Marcuzzo, told Agence France Presse, “I don’t think this affair will call the Pope’s visit into question.”
The millennium planning comes at a time of increased tourism this year. As many as 2.7 million tourists are expected to visit by the end of December, surpassing the record 2.5 million who came in 1995, Sommer said.
Those planning to visit are being encouraged to buy their tickets now to take advantage of some of the lowest prices in years. El Al Israel Airlines and Continental Airlines, which earlier this year began regular service to Tel Aviv from Newark Airport, both are selling round-trip tickets for $499. Tower Air is offering an even lower fare, $479. And TWA is even beating that fare with a $495 ticket.
Visitors booking reservations at participating hotels in Jerusalem between Nov. 15 and Feb. 29 (exclusive of Dec. 17 to Jan. 6) will be able to stay five nights for the price of four when using MasterCard.
Former Tourism Minister Moshe Katsav said on Israel radio earlier this month that he believed Israel would have enough hotel rooms for as many as 4.5 million visitors next year. Although the country could not handle all of them during the Pope’s trip, “if they spread out throughout the year with a few peak periods in Christmas and Easter, the state is ready.”
Sommer pointed out that the country is opening new hotels at a record rate to prepare for the influx of visitors. Ten new five-star hotels will have opened by the end of this year, including a 207-room Howard Johnson’s centrally located on Jaffa Road, and Israel’s first hotel operated by Switzerland’s Movenpick chain, the 244-room Movenpick Jerusalem.
The City of Tel Aviv is holding its own Millennium Eve celebration on Dec. 31 in Rabin Square that will feature performances by major Israeli entertainers, a big dance party and futuristic fireworks. The site can accommodate up to 250,000 revelers. The event will be telecast worldwide.
Until recently, it was uncertain if Israel would hold an official New Year’s Eve party because Dec. 31 falls out on Friday, the Jewish Sabbath. The event is also being thrown to celebrate the 90th birthday of Tel Aviv, Israel’s largest metropolitan area and the home to 2 million Israelis.
Sommer said that to date, reservations have been booked for 2.5 million tourists next year. But he said the high season for Christian traffic to Israel, September through December, has not yet been booked. He said Christian tours generally book six months, not a year in advance. As a result, he said, Israel is now mounting a major marketing campaign aimed at that group.
“We just sent out a special leaflet to 2.5 million Catholic homes, which included a special letter the Pope wrote expressing his wish to visit Israel,” he said.