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What Travelers Should Know About Visiting Israel

While Israel is a modern society with most of the same comforts as America, it is a country built on ancient religious doctrines and customs and very conservative in many ways.
11/23/2010 02:49pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011
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If you were to go by the stories you see on the news you might expect that travel to Israel was suffering terribly. Throughout 2010, the news reported hostility between various countries and Israel. You might be surprised to hear that tourism has never been better in that part of the world. In fact, tourism to Israel is out-pacing prior years.

Back in July of 2010 the Israeli Minister of Tourism, Stas Misezhnikov, reported that more than 2.8 million people had visited Israel this year. That number exceeded the number of people who visited Israel during the same period in 2008. Just this month the Minister announced that he was upbeat about tourism and the numbers of tourists has increased each month, looking to put past numbers far behind 2010's totals. The United States, meanwhile, remains the country sending the highest number of tourists with 2010 estimates in the neighborhood of 600,000 tourists.

It would seem that the world still has a deep desire to visit Israel and is not reacting to the general news stories. Perhaps more importantly, these travelers come from all walks of life, cultures and religions.

With those kinds of numbers it is probably also fairly safe to assume that there are an increased number of travel agencies and tour operators booking trips to Israel. While that may be fine for the Israeli economy and tourism numbers, it might create problems for those American and Europeans traveling to a country they think they know well from the news, but actually know very little about.

While Israel is an ally to the United States, and a democracy like other allies such as Great Britain and Canada, it is important to remember that it is different in many ways that might be surprising to some Americans. Those who travel there expecting it to be just like the United States, except warmer, are likely to be surprised. While Israel is a modern society with most of the same comforts as America, it is a country built on ancient religious doctrines and customs and very conservative in many ways.

When most people think of wearing conservative clothing, for example, they probably assume we are talking about travel to a Muslim country. However, if you travel to Israel with the intention of visiting holy sites and temples, men and women will need to keep their arms and legs covered. When visiting a temple, men must be sure to cover their heads. Many areas of Israel are deeply religious and violations of these rules can be very upsetting to the community.

Travelers to Israel may also be unaware that during some hours of the week, nearly the entire country shuts down. While there are portions of the Jewish communities throughout the United States that do likewise, it is not nearly as widespread or common. All of New York City, as an example, does not shut down on Fridays to observe the Sabbath. However, if a tourist is in Israel they may suddenly find themselves unable to find public transportation from sunset on Friday until after sundown on Saturday. Also, since even pushing a button is considered work during the Sabbath, most hotels have what is known as a "Shabbat" or "Sabbath" elevator that works automatically, stopping and opening on each floor. Therefore, a traveler should know that taking an elevator during Shabbat is different than other times of the week.

While the tourism numbers show that more and more Americans and Europeans want to explore this historic land, it pays to be educated about the culture. This does not mean clinging to preconceived notions developed from watching the nightly news. Most of the country is populated with average people trying to go about their lives just like anywhere else in the world.

No tourist from any country should go to Israel unprepared. They should go physically and mentally prepared to learn and understand the country's customs and rich history. By doing so, travelers can enrich their experience without being shocked, dismayed or flustered and without causing shock and dismay within the community.

The best thing you can do, if you are traveling to Israel, is to ask your travel agent for information. Then, spend some time doing research on your own. There are numerous books about the history of the country and the internet is filled with information and resources for travelers. A vacation to the Holy Land should not be taken lightly, but neither does it need to be worrisome.