Why More and More Visitors to Israel Prefer to Arrive by Sea

Some call the year 2022 'historical' when it comes to cruises to and from Israel. A tour of the high-flying Rhapsody of the seas, docked in Haifa, sheds light on questions hovering over maritime luxury travel

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The Rhapsody of the Seas, owned by Royal Caribbean, in the Haifa Port. Love was in the harbor air.Credit: Rami Shllush
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

At 6 A.M., the Rhapsody of the Seas made its approach to the Haifa Port and docked at the jetty. At 10 A.M., when I came aboard for a tour, the last passengers were still dragging suitcases toward the nearby train station.

They had returned from a week-long cruise, during which the ship, operated by American cruise line Royal Caribbean, docked in Limassol, Cyprus, and in the Greek islands of Rhodes and Santorini. By midday passengers were lining up for the next cruise, departing at 6 P.M. for a similar Mediterranean tour. In the interim, between the farewell and the hello, the ship’s staff worked frantically and incessantly.

The year 2022 has been significant year in the realm of passenger cruises to and from Israel. Some call it “historic.” This is the first year in which Haifa has served as a port of call for international maritime travel, and 109 different cruises, all told, are scheduled by the end of the year to dock at the foot of Mt. Carmel.

Tourists waiting to board the Rhapsody of the Seas cruise ship, in Haifa, northern Israel.Credit: Rami Shllush

In addition there are an additional 116 ships that will arrive in Haifa for a one or two-day “pit stop.” According to port data, 132,000 Israelis and 160,000 foreign tourists will pass through its gates this year. Compared to 2018, the last year of significant travel prior to the outbreak of COVID, when only 28,000 tourists graced Haifa Port – this is undoubtedly a dramatic change.

For four hours, I toured the nine floors of the Rhapsody of the Seas. The ship’s crew members smiled with their eyes, as they were all masked. Hand sanitizing was required at the entrance to every hall. The passengers I spoke with, those who disembarked and drank coffee at the port, and those boarding and seeking a comfortable place near the pool – all looked happy. They included large families with children, and those summarizing their week-long journey were brimming with accolades. They praised the cabins and the food, the activities and the staff, the atmosphere and the service. Love was in the harbor air.

Aboard the Rhapsody of the Seas cruise ship. Nightly shows including homages to Celine Dion and "The Titanic."Credit: Rami Shllush

I checked out the passenger cabins with the sea-facing balconies (I didn’t see the interior cabins). I saw attractive young women getting a tan by the pool, children struggling to reach the top of the climbing wall, and elderly ladies heading for the casino. I was told about the artistic programs offered every evening (homages to great pianists, to musicals, to ballroom dancing, to Celine Dion and “The Titanic”) and observed tons of food being served in several immense restaurants.

Two-thousand passengers and 765 crew members ply the decks of the Rhapsody of the Seas. The ship was launched 25 years ago, the year David Foster Wallace’s slim volume, “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” about a pleasure cruise in the Caribbean, came out. On the train, heading to Haifa, I decided that I should not keep seeing cruises through the eyes of Foster Wallace, the depressive genius who committed suicide in 2008. A quarter century has passed. It’s time to open a clean slate.
That sinking feeling

Royal Caribbean’s representatives explained to me that they walk a fine line. On the one hand, the American company is proud of its international reputation for high-quality voyages, and as an entity that controls a quarter of the global pleasure cruise market. On the other hand, over 90 percent of the passengers on cruises departing from Haifa are Israeli tourists. The issue the cruise line is wrestling with is how much to accommodate the local audience and translate everything into Hebrew, and how much to maintain the American, international character that is part and parcel of their “product.”

Haifa seen from within the Rhapsody of the Seas cruise ship.Credit: Rami Shllush

The music, an important motif aboard the Rhapsody of the Seas, is neither Israeli nor Mediterranean. It’s American plus local pop sensation Noa Kirel. At lunch, on the other hand, hummus and tahini were served alongside Indian-style salmon and rice. One of the ship’s dining rooms serves only kosher food. There is a synagogue, on another floor.

The price of the week-long cruise was 1,600 shekels ($466) per person, in a double room in the cheapest cabin. In any event, there are no more tickets for cruises this season, which ends at the end of October. The price includes nearly everything, which is to say room, board and onboard entertainment. It does not include liquor, gambling at the casino, or spa treatments like massages. Compared to many Israeli hotels, this is a good deal – even excellent.

In recent months three cruise companies have been operating round-trip journeys from Haifa. The Lirica, owned by the Italian firm MSC Cruises (the fourth-largest in the world), began sailing to and from Haifa in mid-April. Israeli firm Mano Shipping, which operates the Crown Iris, has been doing the same since mid-May (750 rooms, 2,000 passengers). Royal Caribbean, which owns Rhapsody of the Seas, began sailing from Haifa in August.

Tourists leaving the Rhapsody of the Seas cruise ship, in Haifa.Credit: Rami Shllush

Lately the Norwegian Cruise Line announced the maiden voyage of Norwegian Epic, which will set sail for the first time from Haifa on November 15, for an 11-day cruise. It will pass through Athens, Rhodes, Florence, Istanbul and Rome. Other cruises along the same route are scheduled for November and December 2023, and March and October 2024.

November will also see the maiden cruise from Haifa of the Costa Venezia, operated by Italian company Costa Cruises, which is in turn owned by the Carnival mega-corporation. It will sail from Haifa to Egypt and Istanbul. That trip will be followed by sailings for American passengers by luxury cruise lines including Seabourn, Regent, Grand Circle Line, Oceania and Windstar. Their passengers will fly to Israel, enjoy a tour of the Mediterranean and fly back to the States.

The question mark that always hovers over pleasure cruises is: Do they constitute the perfect vacation in which you don’t need to worry about anything, or are they like a stay in a high-end prison with great amenities, but unsuited to those suffering from seasickness or mild social phobias? You cannot sail for a week without brushing shoulders with other people who also wish to eat, drink, lounge on the deck or bathe in the pool. On the other hand, personal experience shows that great tranquility can come of such cruises. One’s sense of freedom intensifies at sea.

Early happy hour

An older English couple, handsome and tan, sat by the pool. They told me they were from Cyprus and apologized twice. First they apologized for having a cocktail before lunch (“fruit juice with a bit of gin doesn’t count”) and then for not disembarking to tour Haifa (“We’ve been here twice before”).

Asked whether they had enjoyed their trip, they replied that everything was wonderful. Then they admitted there had been a slight problem: When they booked the cruise in Cyprus they didn’t realize, or perhaps weren’t told, that nearly all the other passengers would be Israelis. “It’s a bit of an odd feeling, but everything is truly wonderful. Oh, we also didn’t know that there would be so many children, but that’s fine too,” they said, taking long sips from the cocktails.

Poolside on the Rhapsody of the Seas ship, which tours the MediterraneanCredit: Rami Shllush

When I asked the young crew member who is in charge of the club room for older kids (ages 10 to 14) what it’s like to work with Israelis, she said that the children are great, but the parents are a little strange.

What does that mean?

“Our rules say that it’s a compound for children only,” she answers, “with no entry to parents. But Israeli parents are afraid to leave their kids alone. On other cruises, in the Caribbean, for example, the opposite happens: The parents leave the children and don’t come to pick them up.”

For his part, Zohar Rom, the head of tourism and cruise operations at the Haifa Port, explained the revolution that has taken place this year. “This is the first time that international companies have considered Haifa and Israel a market, where it’s worthwhile to establish a home port.” He said that other big news is that the large companies catering to wealthy tourists from North America are now arriving here two or three times a year. They typically have 700 passengers disembarking in Haifa and another 700 boarding.

Tourists boarding the Rhapsody of the Seas ship, at Haifa's port.Credit: Rami Shllush

“We hadn’t experienced anything similar in the past and the fact that the sailings are full makes us very happy,” Rom adds.

The breakdown between Israeli and foreigner passengers among the companies that now operate in Haifa is as follows: On MSC’s Lirica half the passengers (of a total of 2,500) are foreign tourists who board in Piraeus and half are Israelis. On Royal Caribbean’s Rhapsody of the Seas almost all are Israelis who board in Haifa. On Costa Cruises only 400 passengers began their voyage in Haifa on a ship that contains 5,000 people. On Mano all the passengers are Israelis.”

Rom admits that at the moment the port’s infrastructure is the main obstacle to bringing in additional cruise ships. Since the coronavirus crisis erupted, passport control is not done at sea but in the terminal, and it’s often a difficult process, due mainly to the shortage of inspectors and other employees. A home port, he says, demands a bigger terminal. There are no luggage restrictions on cruises; in order to load and unload 3,000 large suitcases, more service support is needed.

The Haifa Port asked the Tourism Ministry to help finance a new, modern terminal that will cost 140 million shekels ($40.8 million). The port will invest half of the sum and Rom hopes that the ministry will contribute the other half. The ability to heighten incoming tourism depends on such a terminal, he asserts. It would allow the port to deal with a million tourists arriving by sea, each year. This summer 160,000 arrived. Next year he hopes to have a quarter of a million.

Musicians onboard the Rhapsody of the Seas ship.Credit: Rami Shllush
Aboard the Rhapsody of the Seas. Says Haifa Port's Zohar Rom: "The cruise lines need more room."Credit: Rami Shllush

Why is there such a long line of passengers at the entrance to the port?

Rom: “The line of passengers at the entrance is part of the problem. There’s a line there because they deposit their suitcases there. The cruise lines need more room and we have no room to give them in the port. These companies provide amazing service. And there’s an overload because the Israelis come before the designated time.”

Have you left COVID behind?

“Yes, the restrictions have been lifted. In Israel there are good opportunities and the cruise ships are full; you can’t get tickets. Worldwide they’re talking about a 70-percent recovery [vis-a-vis the pre-coronavirus period].”

Too much demand

Eyal Attias, CEO of MSC Cruises in Israel, also talks about the surge in cruises that has taken place this year. “For the first time we have a ship here that picks up Israelis and brings them back after a week to the Haifa Port. We have a regular route, from Thursday to Thursday. We depart Haifa and head to Limassol, from there to Rhodes, Santorini, Piraeus, Kusadasi in Turkey, then there’s a day at sea and back to Haifa.

"Fewer than half the passengers are Israeli. The rest are Americans, Australians, Europeans and other foreign nationals. It’s important to stress that we’re an international rather than an Israeli type of cruise. You sail in an international atmosphere and with a different code of behavior. This is not a hotel in Eilat, and that’s significant.”

Have you adapted the cruise to Israelis?

Attias: “We have more Israelis than we had planned. We didn’t meet the demand and extended our activities until early January. From early June we sold all the tickets until the end of October, and we’re adapting our product, but cautiously. The main language is English. There are menus in Hebrew, the daily schedule is translated into Hebrew, there are announcements in Hebrew by our representatives on the ship. The food is Mediterranean-style. We have an Israeli stand-up comic and an Israeli singer.”

The art gallery aboard the Rhapsody of the Seas. An international atmosphere.Credit: Rami Shllush

How would you describe the passengers?

“In the summer there are mainly families with children, although that’s typical of cruises everywhere. Kids get very good prices with us. In the fall the passengers are older. The price for an interior room was about $600 per person per week this summer. A room with a balcony, or a suite, costs more; the price can reach $1,400 for a week. The average is $1,000 per person at the height of the season.”

What will happen next year?

One of the immense dining rooms on the Rhapsody of the Seas.Credit: Rami Shllush

“Our next season will begin on April 27, 2023; the Musica, a larger cruise ship, will arrive here. It has 1,270 rooms and holds about 3,300 passengers.”

Is the port suitable for this?

“When it comes to infrastructure, Israel is several decades behind. The port of Barcelona and others are two generations ahead of us. In Haifa they have made a great effort. They have organized quickly and they’re learning as they go – and it’s also thanks to them that we have had a successful season.”

Would it be correct to say that Israelis have discovered cruises?

“There’s a clientele in Israel of cruise lovers, about 120,000 passengers a year, and the market that is opening this year looks promising. In the future we’ll see more ships and many hundreds of thousands of passengers here.”

Industry challenges

The recovery of the cruise industry worldwide, since the coronavirus crisis, and the somewhat belated flourishing of the industry in Israel, partially conceal a series of problems that have surfaced in recent years.

In the context of the pandemic, what people remember most perhaps is the dramatic and lengthy docking in early 2020 of Carnival’s Diamond Princess at the Yokohama Port in Japan. Over 700 of the 3,000 passengers were diagnosed with COVID-19. Eight died. But the virus has almost been forgotten and now more serious problems confront the industry.

The first problem, and probably the most significant, is the issue of the environmental pollution caused by the giant ships. At present there are about 400 such cruise vessels worldwide, operated by 38 companies. About half a million workers are employed in the industry. The massive ships leave behind a huge trail of pollution, whether emissions from the engines or sewage.

In 2016 a U.S. court imposed a $40-million fine on a Carnival ship that discharged oily, polluting waste into the sea. As part of the effort to stem engine pollution, several companies have announced that they will switch to liquid gas, which is considered more environmentally friendly.

Another problem relates to how port cities that host ships benefit from their visits. Usually the ships come for a short time. Most of the Mediterranean cruises are planned in such as way that the ships anchor every day in a different port and sail between them at night. And a short stop means that little money is spent: Passengers sleep and eat on the ships and go out to the city for a tour that is sometimes included in their package – in other words, they don’t support the local economy.

The movie theater on the Rhapsody of the Seas cruise ship.Credit: Rami Shllush

In Dubrovnik, Croatia, cruise passengers are dubbed “ice-cream tourists” – and that’s not a compliment. In Valetta, Malta, where 480 cruise ships anchor every year, with about half a million visitors debarking, there’s a depressing statistic indicating that these tourists spend only 10 euros a day per person. Malta needs the income, but a headline in the newspaper Malta Today asked: “Are the cruise tourists worth the problems?”

In Venice about four years ago they banned giant ships from entering the municipal lagoon; in Amsterdam they have imposed a tax of 8 euros for every cruise ship passenger who goes into the city; and in Dubrovnik authorities have limited the number of these visitors to 5,000 a day.

Another issue plaguing the industry is the employment conditions of the crews. They are employed for several weeks or months consecutively and naturally “reside” in their place of work. In the past there have been reports in the United States about harsh and unfair work conditions, along with articles in newspapers and books about the sizzling sex lives of crew members.

Of course, it’s impossible to learn anything about all that during a brief walk around the deck. On the other hand, you can have a cold drink opposite the sea – and forget everything.

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