Like other Mediterranean countries which enjoyed 35% of all international tourism in the past two decades Israel offers tourists a wide range of attractions. Its mild winters, sunny summers and year-round beaches draw recreational tourists, while its varied landscape, with easily accessible trails, visitor centers and knowledgeable guides attract nature lovers and trekkers. Rare species of fish and corals bring divers to the Gulf of Eilat, and the country’s position at a crossroads of geography and climate make it a bird-watcher’s and botanist’s paradise. And, like its Mediterranean neighbors, Israel has archeological sites which draw visitors from around the world. But, unlike some of those countries, Israel houses holy sites for the world’s three great monotheistic religions, making pilgrimage an important feature in tourism to the country. Israel is also world renowned for health tourism. The Dead Sea appeals to beach tourists as well as those in search of health and beauty: its salty water, dense black mud and mineral and sulphur springs all have therapeutic or curative value.

These features combine to make tourism a major source of foreign currency earnings for Israel: 4.2% of GNP for 1989, with between 1 million and 1.4 million tourists arriving from abroad annually during the mid-1980s (Figure 24). In the next decades, international tourism is expected to increase. By 2025, as many as 7.5 million tourists may visit Israel annually, according to optimistic forecasts based on a rapid resolution of the Middle East conflict. Domestic tourism is also likely to grow, with the shortening of the work week and rise in standard of living.

As a result, the tourism infrastructure will have to expand. For example, significant growth in the number of Mediterranean marinas is expected: 14 facilities with a total of 10,000 moorings. Until recently, planning for tourist development has been limited to hotel sites and visitor facilities at the most commonly visited sites. Efforts are now being directed toward broadening the scope of tourist activities and providing a wider range of accommodations throughout the country, including rural areas.

Environmental Implications

During the hot summer months, both domestic and international tourism is focused on water sources: bathing beaches, lake shores, pools and springs. Pressure on natural resources, especially on the few, sensitive, water-rich systems, may cause permanent damage. In the Sea of Galilee, where intensive recreational use threatens to endanger the quality of the water, efforts are currently under way to find alternative sites. Other environmental problems which result from tourism are: increasing traffic congestion on weekends and holidays, incursion into sensitive landscape areas, overcrowded parking lots, over-use of picnic areas, inadequate litter collection and disposal, and forest fires. These problems may be addressed in a number of ways, including improved visitor facilities, and constraints on public access to ensure that natural resources are not damaged by over-use. In the environmentally sensitive area of the Gulf of Eilat, measures will have to be taken to safeguard the coral reef ecosystem and the unique landscape. In the fragile desert environment, off-road vehicle travel may need to be curbed to prevent irreparable damage.

Tourism may also foster benefits for the environment. It may provide incentives for reclamation and improvement of damaged environments, protection of natural landscapes, cleanliness in the public domain, safeguarding and restoration of archeological sites, and the removal of environmental nuisances.

With proper and professional management, the challenge of balancing between the development of tourism and preservation of the environment can be met. Tools for evaluating the impact of tourism have been developed, and are expected to facilitate environmentally-sound decision making in this sphere.