Why you should care
Because Israel is tapping into a whole new market.
This month, Israel welcomes an important guest from the East — Narendra Modi, who will become the first Indian prime minister to make an official visit. When Modi travels, he likes to connect with his own nation’s diaspora, so he’ll be able to break bread and give a hearty l’chaim to 80,000-plus of his countrymen who are among some 31 million Indian nationals living abroad.
Israel is becoming increasingly popular with Asians, as a place to live but mainly as a place to visit. In May 2017, tourist arrivals from India were up 42 percent from the year before, and those from China increased 68.6 percent during the same period. This isn’t a coincidence: Israel has made a big marketing push to woo travelers from those countries. In 2015, the tourism ministry opened a bureau in Mumbai and spent $1.5 million on a PR campaign; in 2016, the first tourism attaché was dispatched to China. And this August, tourism officials plan to run a multicity road show across the Indian subcontinent.
WOW [Air] is always looking for interesting places to expand, and we recognize the huge potential of Israel.
Nir Grossman, WOW Air
Tourism is important to Israel; in 2016, it contributed 6.8 percent of the gross domestic product, which sounds healthy in isolation, but actually represents a 14 percent decline compared with 2006 — due primarily to Israel’s military conflict with Lebanon. To address this issue, Israel tripled its tourism marketing budget last year, to $77.7 million, with a focus on expanding into new regions, with some help from relaxed visa requirements and an increase in the number of airlines serving the country.
“I’d never thought of Israel as a travel destination,” says Indian travel blogger Aditi Mathur Kumar. “But I [was] proved wrong, I was mesmerized by everything: the lifestyle, the culture, the history.” She also found the food more familiar than expected, with shwarma and falafel readily available, and was pleasantly surprised by how much international cuisine was on offer. Kumar was the first of her friends and acquaintances to visit Israel; shocked that she was going, they warned her to be careful. But what she saw wasn’t frightening; it was wondrous. Kumar’s trip was sponsored by the Israel Ministry of Tourism, which has been using some of its additional funding to target global influencers, although most comp-free visitors also have glowing things to say about their travels.
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Another influencer is celebrity blogger Perez Hilton, according to Camila Seta, PR director of the tourism ministry. Her office sent Hilton and his family to Tel Aviv for the June gay pride parade in exchange for blogging and Instagramming about the experience. “Trip of a lifetime!!” Hilton wrote — yes, he was so excited by all that free travel that he used two exclamation points. Seta is happy that she can show influencers a good time in Israel and is actively targeting the LGBT and millennial populations — demographics with disposable income and an inclination to travel. “People travel more these days, and the average millennial is more global,” Seta says. She also notes an increased demand for Mandarin- and Spanish-speaking tour guides.
Easier access is another reason for the surge in visitors. In 2016, Hainan Airlines began direct flights between Beijing and Tel Aviv, and the carrier plans to add Shanghai departures starting in September. El Al flies Mumbai–Tel Aviv and will add Delhi to the roster this year. Air India introduced flights from New Delhi in May. In October, the German carrier Lufthansa will add five additional flights per week from Frankfurt and Munich.
Budget carriers are also helping to boost visitation to the Holy Land. Ireland’s Ryanair just announced seven new routes between Israel and Europe starting this winter. In May, the low-cost Icelandic carrier WOW Air started selling tickets for new routes between eight American cities and Tel Aviv that will debut in September. Not surprisingly, the one-way fares starting at $149 sold out within hours. “WOW is always looking for interesting places to expand, and we recognize the huge potential of Israel,” says Nir Grossman, WOW Air’s Israeli spokesperson.
Ashley Pearson, editor of I Googled Israel, an online travel guide for tourists and locals, suggests that part of Israel’s current appeal, sadly, is due to terrorism elsewhere, which makes Israel look safer by comparison. Israel’s lowest year for tourism was 2009, right after the Palestinian-Israeli shoot-out, and it declined again after the 2014 Israel-Gaza conflict. “Unfortunately tourism takes a hit here every two to three years with some kind of terror,” Pearson says. Nevertheless, the Western Wall and historic Jerusalem retain their global appeal.
Travel blogger Kumar is grateful that she was able to see Israel for what it is, beyond the scaremongering. So many friends expressed interest in her trip that she created a blog detailing itineraries, and she knows people who’ve been to the country as a result. When asked how she would describe the vest-pocket Middle Eastern nation, she responds: “I’d say it looks like the U.S., but better and cleaner. I tell everyone to go to Israel.”