Pandemic doesn’t dampen long-term hope in Israel

The pandemic has heavily hit the Israeli tourism sector, but the country’s hotels are likely to recover sooner than those in other countries of the Middle East.

TEL AVIV—The Israeli hotel industry was set for fast growth in the coming years on the back of record-breaking tourist flow in 2019, and sources believe the pandemic has slowed, but not stopped, that success story.

Israel hosted a record number of tourists in 2019, with around 4.55 million people visiting the country, compared to 4.1 million visitors in 2018 and 3.6 million in 2017, said the Israeli Tourism Ministry. Before the spread of COVID-19, that organization predicted an estimated 5 million foreign arrivals were due to come in 2020.

The pandemic has turned the tables, and some hoteliers are very stark in their analyses.

“The effect is worse than all the wars and operations Israel had gone through during the previous 15 years, combined,” said Avi Zak, managing partner of Drisco Hotel Tel Aviv.

“We went from nearly 100% occupancy to 0% in three to four days between 11 to 15 March and until the beginning of June this year. The overall occupancy of 2020 will be 30% to 50% lower than projected before the COVID-19 crisis.”

Tali Tenenbaum, VP of marketing at the Israel Hotel Association, said hoteliers have taken a massive hit.

“The hotel industry is the first to be hit and the last to recover,” she said. “The injury to the industry is fatal. Only about 63% of hotels have reopened since May 2020. In cities based on foreign tourism such as Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Tiberius, the situation is even more difficult.”

Some managers preferred not to open their hotels, while others adjusted pricing.

“We have adjusted the rates and product to the local Israeli market, and since opening, we maintain a high level of occupancy at relatively affordable rates,” Zak said.

The demand environment remains week, said Estelle Hock, sales analyst lead and guest relations manager at Israeli-owned Atlas Hotels, which has 16 hotels in the country.

“Ninety-nine per cent of the hotels in Israel were closed for several months at the beginning of the pandemic. Many are still closed as non-Israelis tourists are not allowed to visit Israel,” she said.

Between January and July 2020, average occupancy in Tel Aviv amounted to 34.5%, down 55% year over year, according to data from STR, the parent company of Hotel News Now.

For the same period, the city’s average daily rate fell 29.9% to 672.50 ($194.69) Israel new shekel, and revenue per available room fell 68.5% to 231.70 ($67.08) new shekel.

Weighing the advantages
On 16 August, the Israeli government approved a bailout package for hotels at the cost of 300 million Israeli new shekels ($88 million), to be distributed in the form of grants.

Eligibility for those grants and amounts paid to each hotel is determined on each hotel’s slump in revenue compared with corresponding periods in previous years, the tourism ministry said.

Simon Hulten, the senior associate at business advisory HVS London, sees government interventions in Israeli as vital.

“The bailout package, including the cancellation of city tax, a furlough scheme which runs until June 2021, as well as grants to assist with running costs until next June, (is), as far as I know, more extensive than many other countries in Europe and will without a doubt be a key pillar to frame and assist existing hotels to stay afloat,” he said.

He said many countries and markets with less reliance on international demand and air travel had experienced stronger recoveries during the summer and would probably continue to do so going forward. That includes Israel, with more than 50% of its overnight demand deriving from domestic tourism, a percentage higher than many other countries in the Mediterranean region.

Sources said the bailout package will help hoteliers to make it through. Hulten said he anticipates the hotel industry would achieve pre-crisis performance around 2024.

The bailout package may be altered the longer the battle against COVID-19 lasts, said Tenenbaum, who added the pandemic appears to be a marathon, rather than a rally.

She said that when the dedicated grant was formulated in June, it was intended to help pay hotels’ fixed expenses on the assumption that towards the end of the year, inbound tourism would have recovered.

“No one imagined that the crisis would continue to hit us during 2021, and hotels will be closed again, so the support, which we hope will be received soon, does not compensate for the long period,” Tenenbaum said, who added the industry needed to further lobby government.

Some hoteliers, though, are not counting on much state aid.

“The bailout package is something we are not looking at or looking for. We work harder now to pay all our debts and be able to provide our employees with as many jobs as possible. If we got something, I would be highly surprised. I assume that we will see some kind of improvement in one year and return to 2019 numbers in 2022,” the Drisco Hotel Tel Aviv’s Zak said.

Tenenbaum said despite the pandemic’s effect on investment attractiveness, in the last month new hotels have launched.

She said Israeli hoteliers are very skilled at dealing with crises and unprecedented challenges.

“Israel’s hoteliers have an exceptional experience on how to thrive in periods of uncertainty, perhaps more than any other country, and have demonstrated the value of being agile and successful in challenging environments,” she said.

“Although this crisis is unprecedented, this mindset and the ability to adapt to new circumstances are definitely in Israel’s favor when looking at potential recovery curves,” Hulten added.


Filed Under: HotelsEconomy

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