Israel is not often a country many Indians plan to visit. Whether it is a perceived threat from militancy or just a lack of awareness about the destination, comparatively few Indians have Israel in their bucket list. This despite thousands of young Israelis travelling to India annually and the plethora of historical and cultural treasure houses the country is known for. The Israeli Ministry of Tourism which conducted a five-city roadshow to promote the country as a tourist destination in India, is looking to highlight other aspects of the country – a young, fun loving, hip destination that should be on Indians’ places to see, Israel Hassan Madah, Director of the Israel Ministry of Tourism, India and Philippines, tells Suman Tarafdar. The bureau in India is not even four years old, but it has major plans. Excerpts from the interview
How many Indians travelled to Israel last year? At what rate is tourism from India Israel growing?
Israel is gaining popularity in India as it has witnessed a surge of 5 per cent in Indian arrivals during the first six months of 2016. Last year we achieved a growth of 13.2% by welcoming 39,529 Indian tourists as compared with 34,920 in 2014. This year also we forecast the growth in Indian arrivals to climb 10 to 15%. Overall, the country welcomed over three million visitors in 2015. 25% visitors were from North and South America followed by Russia with 12%. Asia accounted for 7% tourist arrivals in 2015. India, till recently the largest source market in Asia, has fallen behind China in numbers recently.
What targets have you set for Indian tourist numbers?
We plan double digit growth in the number of Indians travelling to Israel in 2016.
What steps are you taking to increase awareness about Israel in India?
The Israel Ministry of Tourism Office in India has organised this five city road show. We have covered Mumbai, Kolkata, Delhi, Bengaluru and Chennai in the first week of August. This is introducing leading Israeli tour operators with the local tour operators and travel agents to encourage face-to-face interactions and promoting Israel as a preferred destination. We have tripled our marketing budget for India to US$3 million.
How has the response to the roadshow been?
The event was extremely successful with the maximum footfall of renowned companies from the travel industry leading to over 800 agents in attendance. This is the first time the Ministry of Tourism roadshow had 6 Israeli tour operators and El Al Airlines, emphasising the importance of Indian outbound travel market.
How are you looking to spread the word about Israel being a destination of choice in India?
Israel has been gaining popularity in India from 2015. We are seeing more Indians travelling to Israel in big numbers, which can be seen with the increase of 5 per cent from January to June 2016.
Israel has something for everyone from adventure, Dead Sea, deserts and mountains, culture, fashion, nightlife. We work towards adapting strategies to further promote various travel offerings to Israel in India.”
What are the main challenges to increasing the number of visitors from India?
Connectivity is a major challenge. Currently, only El Al flies directly from Mumbai to Tel Aviv. We are talking to Indian airlines to explore the possibility of their flying to Israel. Also it is an expensive flight, and a rather expensive destination, and that impacts the number of visitors. Air India and Jet Airways are exploring opportunities.
Then there is the issue of perception. We have to assure tourists that Israel is a very safe country to visit. The current troubled situation in the region also concerns some.
We also realised that Indian tour agents didn’t know Israel at all. All they do is sell ‘Holy Land’ packages to Christian Indians, since they weren’t familiar with other aspects of Israel such as the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv or Eilat. We have been actively working with the agents to familiarise them about the different aspects of Israel. We have been making them aware of how easy it is to get vegetarian food, and how easy going and fun our main cities are.
Any easing of the visa process in the offing?
The visa process has become much simpler than earlier. FIT visas and group visas are made available by Israel Government for Indian arrivals through VFS Global. Indians often decide to travel at the last minute, and the Israel visa take about a week to be processed. We are working on it.
Why are there no connections from Delhi?
Currently El Al does not have aircraft that can be deployed on this route. They are waiting for delivery of new aircraft, which should ease the situation. However, there are also connections via Istanbul by Turkish Airlines, and Ethiopian via Addis Ababa, both of which fly to Tel Aviv. Aeroflot is also an option.
Is online awareness crucial to reaching out to a newer audience?
The Israel Ministry of Tourism has launched a new website – goisrael.com/in – with information about Israel as a destination, the different cities and locations as well as connecting visitors with Travel Agents and Tour Operators that offer different types of tours to Israel.
Which categories of travellers are going from India?
This is a mix of leisure, business and religious tourism. We see a lot of pilgrim tourism of course as they want to visit the holy sites. We are seeing a steady increase in Indian arrivals to Israel who want discover and learn about new destinations in Israel.
What about MICE groups?
Yes, we are looking to get more MICE groups. We have already seen some groups from the pharma and auto sectors travel. TAAI also held its conference in Israel. We are targeting high-end leisure travellers and MICE groups from tier-I cities like Mumbai and Delhi as we receive most tourists from these cities.
Which are the most visited destinations?
Israel’s top destinations include Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Jaffa, Haifa, Dead Sea and Madaba. We are now trying to promote new destinations such as Akko and Eilat, situated on the shores of Red Sea. Israel welcomed 3.5 million visitors in 2015.
Are you looking to have Indian films getting shot in Israel?
Yes, we are looking at opportunities. Recently we had actor Sonam Kapoor travel in Israel and talk about her experiences there. We also had Sanjeev Kapoor earlier.