By Steven Scheer
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Israel received a record number of tourist visits in 2019 but growth could be slowed this year due to cuts in spending on advertising to promote the country as a destination, the tourism ministry said on Monday.
The announcement came at a time of heightened concern over security in the Middle East after the United States killed a top Iranian general. However, a tourism ministry official said the ministry was no more concerned about the potential impact of geopolitics on tourism than usual.
Israel recorded a 10.6% rise in tourism last year to 4.55 million visits, bringing in 22 billion shekels ($6.3 billion) in revenue.
That came despite two major escalations between Israel and Palestinian militants who control Gaza. Some 1,300 rockets were fired into Israel in 2019, the most since the last major war fought with Hamas in Gaza in 2014.
“We are within reach of achieving 5 million tourists, but we are concerned that the momentum we have achieved in focused marketing that has proven itself will not continue with the same intensity because of significant budget cuts,” Tourism Ministry Director-General Amir Halevi said.
Israel’s budget deficit is expected to have exceeded 3.5% of gross domestic product in 2019, above a target of 2.9%.
The Israeli economy has so far weathered two inconclusive elections and a year of successive caretaker governments. The political stalemate means it will be well into 2020 before a new annual budget is passed, triggering months of cutbacks. The third election in less than a year will be held on March 2.
“Tourism growth has been driven by increased marketing budgets in recent years, and we hope that, despite the budget cut in 2020, we will be able to maintain the tremendous achievements we have reached,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin said in a statement.
The United States remained the top country for incoming tourism in 2019, with a 7% rise to nearly 890,000 entries, followed by France, Russia, Germany, Britain and Italy. Tourism from China jumped 49% to 156,000.
($1 = 3.4755 shekels)
(Reporting by Steven Scheer)