It was some 4,000 years ago that Abraham arrived in the Land of Israel, and 3,000 years ago that King David proclaimed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. So in the general of scheme of things, 60 years is a mere bat of the eyelid. Yet the last 60 years have been some of the most momentous in the millennia-long history of this storied corner of the Mediterranean.
After the foundation of the modern State of Israel in 1948, there was too much to do to be able to concentrate on tourism. The tiny country was fighting for its survival and also struggling to absorb more than a million immigrants -- including survivors of the Holocaust and, most of all, the hundreds of thousands of Jews fleeing the Muslim countries where their ancestors had lived for centuries.
Of course, tourists came to Israel in the early years. El Al Israel Airlines was founded in 1949, and TWA, Air France and others were flying to Israel even before the state was founded. The venerable King David Hotel had been opened in 1931, and in 1953 state-of-the-art post-war tourism arrived in Israel with the unveiling of the Dan Hotel in Tel Aviv. And it was in 1961 that the Boston-based Sheraton corporation defied the Arab boycott of Israel by opening the first foreign chain-hotel in Israel – the Tel Aviv Sheraton. That original Tel Aviv Sheraton no longer exists, but dozens of foreign-based hotels have come to Israel in the ensuing decades.
Israel’s 10th anniversary in 1958 was the impetus for giving a kick-start to the promotion of tourism to Israel. And in the ensuing half-century the Israel tourism scene has been transformed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. In the early years, American tourism to Israel was largely “niche-based.” In the 1960’s, the vast majority of U.S. tourists were Jews coming to admire the country that climaxed the quest initiated by Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, who wrote after the first Zionist Congress in Switzerland in 1897, “today I founded the Jewish State. In five years, but certainly in 50, it will be a reality.”
The 1970’s was the decade that gave birth to the large movement of American Evangelical Christians coming to visit the Holy Land and to rejoice in Israel’s rebirth. And as the 80’s, 90’s and the 21st-century arrived, Israel became a destination on the map not only for “niche” travel, but for the sophisticated international traveler in search of a unique historic and cultural vacation.
In 2007, more Americans visited Israel than at any time in the nation’s 59-year history. And the first months of 2008 are showing a more-than-50% increase in tourism.
Number one for all visitors is the capital, Jerusalem, a city whose historic and religious sites are unrivalled anywhere on the planet.
The second most-visited site in Israel is Masada, the mesa-like plateau that overlooks the Dead Sea where, in the year 70, Jewish refugees from the Roman destruction of Jerusalem held off a Roman siege for three years.
Few visitors to Israel miss a visit to the green north, the region known as Galilee, with its combination of mountains, verdant fields, holy places, the Sea of Galilee and an overall sense of calm and tranquility.
And if Jerusalem is our “Washington D.C.,” then Tel Aviv is our “New York.” In the last fifteen years Tel Aviv has achieved recognition as one of the world’s truly hip cities, with its combination of business, bustle, entertainment, beach and youth – sort of like Rio, Barcelona and Miami’s South Beach mixed in a blender with the addition of some uniquely Israeli spices.