Even as political issues upended tourism in some parts of the Middle East, cruise passenger arrivals in Israel have been growing at a healthy pace during the last few years, according to Haim Gutin, Israel’s tourism commissioner for North and South America.
“It’s a very important segment for us because it attracts sophisticated [seasoned, upmarket] travelers, many of whom come for faith reasons,” Gutin said. “Often, the cruises will combine two destinations, such as Italy and Israel, or Greece and Israel.”
The last year has not been an easy one for Israel’s tourism ministry. Last year’s Arab Spring, particularly the uprising in neighboring Egypt, had a negative impact on Israel’s tourism industry as a whole, but the country still saw gains in cruising.
“Our cruise numbers have been growing a lot,” he said. “In 2011, we had 237,000 passengers.” Of that total, 52,000 came from North America.
The total cruise passenger number was up from 169,100 in 2010, but the increase likely would have been even greater without the political unrest that prompted the rerouting of dozens of itineraries.
The uprisings, however, also had a silver lining for Israel. While many ships overnight in an Israeli port, the Arab Spring prompted some lines to extend their visits to the country.
“Of course, some of the cruise ships stopped coming because many itineraries also included Egypt on Holy Land cruises,” Gutin said. “Egypt is a focal point, a very popular destination. But other ships cut out Egypt and instead came to Israel for longer than they [were scheduled to]. And when the ships stay over for more nights, the passengers are taking more tours, and they are eating out and shopping and spending more money, which we need.”
The trend toward longer visits in Israel, while bypassing Egypt, is continuing this year.
Crystal Cruises, for example, said earlier this month that it revised the Oct. 12 departure of its Ancient Land and Cultures cruise aboard the Crystal Serenity, replacing a call in Alexandria with an extra day in Israel.
The 12-day, Venice-to-Athens sailing was to have visited Ashdod, Israel, for two days and now will add a call in Haifa, Israel, and in Bodrum, Turkey.
Crystal said it made the change in response to “political unrest and uncertainty in Egypt.”
“These kinds of changes are always a nice surprise for us,” said Gutin, who was named commissioner in 2010 after serving as the ministry of tourism’s senior deputy director-general for human resources and logistics.
Other cruise lines that include Israel in their itineraries include Princess, Costa, MSC and Azamara.
Gutin said that each of Israel’s three main cruise ports (Haifa, Ashdod and Eilat) has its own port authority. All are government-owned but independently operated.
Each port facility, he said, has the capability to handle the country’s growing cruise industry, and each one takes steps to court cruise lines.
“There is no problem with the ports having the capability to service the cruise ships,” Gutin said. “We have other issues, though, such as in high season, when the traffic to Jerusalem is backed up and there are long lines of tourists waiting to get into the sites.”
Though cruise arrival numbers are growing, the passengers represent but a fraction of Israel’s total number of visitors. According to Gutin, arrivals of 3.4 million visitors in 2010 dropped by about 2% in 2011.
Of the total 3.4 million who visited in 2010, 650,000 came from North America. Last year, North American visitors dropped to about 633,000, according to arrival numbers provided by a tourism ministry spokesman.
Gutin said total arrival numbers are nevertheless improving: “The early statistics we’ve seen for 2012 show a 7% increase from [this time] last year, but I think, overall, this year will be about the same as 2011.”
The commissioner added that he was “very optimistic” about the continuing growth in cruise passenger arrivals and has been reaching out to U.S. agents.
“We target sophisticated travelers [who visit for the culture] and faith [travelers], so we essentially have two campaigns going,” he said. “We offer newsletters to agents, seminars, webinars and we update agencies about fam trips to Israel. So we have a variety of activities designed to bring our message clear and loud to travel agencies.” Follow Donna Tunney on Twitter @dttravelweekly.