Israel braces for huge influx of international travelers

With a record 2.7 million tourists visiting Israel in 1994 — a 12 percent increase over 1993 — Israel's ports of entry are bracing for an unprecedented influx in the coming years.

But they'll be ready.

January 1995 saw the inauguration of Ben-Gurion Airport's new $7 million Arrivals Hall — part of the Ben-Gurion 2000 project — and plans are underway to improve border crossings and ports so that more internal flights can be scheduled for tourists and Israelis alike.

While Israel's present terminal was designed to accommodate a maximum of 4 million passengers a year, nearly 6 million passed through the country's main gateway last year.

The inauguration of the 4,100-square-meter, air-conditioned Arrivals Hall marked an important stage in the Ben-Gurion 2000 project, which will provide a long-term solution for handling 16 million international passengers annually by the year 2010. It will also improve infrastructure, luggage handling, maintenance facilities, service and support, and permit modular phases for development of runways, terminals and parking lots.

Transport Minister Israel Keisar intends to complete the first stage of the project, which will cost $500 million, in time for Israel's 50th anniversary in May 1998. The second and third phases, estimated to cost $330 million, are expected to be finished by 2010.

"Ben-Gurion will become a five-star airport," Keisar predicted, "and with Israel becoming the natural center of the new Middle East, it will be its busiest airport."

Israel Ports Authority General Manager Motti Deri hinted at further developments.

"This is just the beginning. The airport will certainly not be the country's only gateway."

Some $30 million will be invested over the next two years in improving or actually establishing other border crossings and ports. The woefully inappropriate facilities at the Taba border crossing with Egypt, for example, will be upgraded.

In the meantime, a network of some 20 airstrips has been set up for internal flights, which are becoming de rigeur in this era of highway gridlocks. Some 1.5 million Israelis flew internally last year and the numbers are growing steadily.

Income from tourism rose 8 percent in 1994 to a record $2.75 billion, with the average tourist spending approximately $1,250 per visit. The ongoing construction of new hotels and tourist facilities throughout the country is expected to provide extensive dividends as well.