Beyond Masada and the Kotel

Israel shines as an international tourist destination
By Cindy Mindell

WESTON – Tova Gilead has watched the Israeli tourism trade evolve before her eyes. A tourguide in her native Israel from 1970 to 1980, Gilead developed a specialty in the bar- and bat-mitzvah family tour. After moving to the U.S., she continued her work as Tova Gilead, Inc., a tour operator catering to families throughout the country and specializing in multi-generational trips.

For the last 30 years, Gilead has planned tours for both first-time visitors to Israel and “revisitors,” starting with a basic itinerary and adding on more unusual destinations as time and interest allow.
“Today, there is so much more to see than when I was a tourguide,” she says.
When Gilead moved her home and business from Long Island to Weston in 2007, her first clients were the Titlebaums of Westport, who wanted to celebrate son Jake’s bar mitzvah in Israel. Gilead planned an itinerary for 18 family members, with the bar mitzvah ceremony at Robinson’s Arch in the Old City of Jerusalem.
This month, the same 18-member group will return to Israel for Gabrielle Titlebaum’s bat mitzvah on Masada. Because the family has visited Israel before, their itinerary is a bit more unusual, including a night sleeping in Bedouin tents in Chan Hashayarot, a traditional nomadic convoy in the Negev Desert. The family will mark Yom HaZikaron, the Israeli remembrance day for fallen soldiers and victims of terror, in Jerusalem, and celebrate Yom HaAtzmaut, Israel Independence Day, in Tel Aviv.
Gilead works a lot with Isrotel, an Israeli hotel chain that built the first resort hotel in Eilat 20 years ago and now has luxury spa-hotels throughout the country. She booked the Titlebaums at Isrotel Dead Sea the night before the bat mitzvah ceremony, and was lucky to find space.
“All the spa-resorts are sold out,” she says, a trend she has watched for the last 10 years, since Eilat took off as an international resort destination. “There are a lot of Europeans, mostly French and English Jews, who come to resorts in Eilat, Tel Aviv, and the Dead Sea. Today, every hotel puts in a spa. During the summer they force you to book a full week.”
The Sea of Galilee is the latest region to be developed as a resort destination. In 2011, Isrotel plans to open Beresheet Hotel, a world-class leisure resort in the Negev-desert terrain of Mitzpe Ramon, the largest crater in the world.
Even when the economy started its recent downturn, tourism to Israel wasn’t affected, Gilead says, “especially in 2008, when the country celebrated its 60th anniversary and an overwhelming number of people came.” Not only has the country become an international tourist and pilgrimage destination, but Israelis have more vacation money and often spend it at home. “Israel offers very good value,” she says, “better than in Europe, because the dollar is weaker than the Euro.”
Another trend is the “zimmer,” a guest house on a moshav, or collective farm. This “rural tourism,” mostly in the Galilee and Golan, has become popular with Israelis traveling on a budget, and among Israelis living abroad who return to visit.
Gilead says that, while tourists still seek out the classic destinations like Jerusalem, Masada, and the Dead Sea, there are many more highlights along the tourist trail. Popular today are the Western Wall tunnels, the Beit Guvrin archeological dig south of Jerusalem, the Golan and Galilee regions, the Baha’i Gardens in Haifa. The port of Tel Aviv was renovated into a new restaurant and entertainment district last year to mark the city’s 100th anniversary.
For Gilead, who can’t accompany every tour group she organizes, but who checks in on each when she is in Israel, her love of the country is renewed through her clients’ experience. “I always took everything for granted,” she says, “but when I see Jerusalem for the first time through their eyes, there is nothing like it in the whole world.”

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