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Challenge and opportunity: Israel tourism looks ahead

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  •   03-24-2015  8:57 am
Challenge and opportunity: Israel tourism looks ahead

Uri Steinberg, Israel tourism commissioner, North AmericaWhile tourists are often intrigued by the mix of rich history and modern amenities which Israel offers, the cyclic history of conflict in the Middle East has proven to be a detriment.

Despite the challenges, however, Israel perseveres, both as a country and travel destination. And in regards to the latter challenge, it’s all about educating both travellers and travel agents about reality versus what’s featured in the media, according to Uri Steinberg, Israel Tourism Commissioner for North America.

“The reality is so different from what people see on the news,” Steinberg told “People are so surprised when they get here.”

In 2014, a year marked by a summer of conflict between Israel and Gaza, the country welcomed approximately 690,000 North American travellers (mostly from the U.S., with more than 66,000 of them from Canada). In a previous statement, Steinberg said that while the numbers represent a modest increase over 2013, he described the statistic as a “considerable achievement in light of the troubles that affected our region during the summer of 2014."

Tel AvivWhile religious pilgrimages for travellers of either Jewish or Christian faith are among the most popular trips to Israel, Steinberg said that such travel is more common for U.S. tourists, with Canadians travelling to the region for “purely tourist reasons,” whether taking in the history of cities like Jerusalem (Israel’s most visited site, Steinberg said) and Nazareth or enjoying the beaches and nightlife of Tel Aviv.

In addition to Israel’s historic and religious draws, Steinberg said that the IGTO is actively exploring how to market various travel niches in a bid to draw tourists.

With a rich mix of cultures from the Middle East, North Africa and Europe, Steinberg said that a robust culinary scene has taken root in the land of milk and honey over the last 15 years, drawing foodies from around the world looking to sample cuisine both traditional and modern at the country’s many restaurants. Similarly, an emerging wine industry is also drawing travellers, and while Steinberg said that Israel is “not trying to take on Napa Valley” as a top destination for oenophiles, the country’s 200+ wineries are enhancing Israel’s already-strong travel draws, such as the Sea of Galilee.

Part of this niche strategy also includes catering to the LGBT travel segment, Steinberg said, with Tel Aviv featuring one of the strongest LGBT communities in the Middle East.

And due to geography, Israel sits in the middle of multiple bird migration routes, drawing more than one billion birds across the country as seasons change each year, making it a prime destination for bird-watchers flying in from around the world.Galilee

Steinberg said that due in part to general misconceptions about the size of the Middle East, there’s an unfortunate tendency for travel numbers to drop in all countries throughout the region as a result of an incident in one specific area. Currently, Steinberg said that news about the actions of the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq are having an impact on those numbers, adding that travel was similarly affected during the Arab Spring uprisings of 2011 in North Africa.

“ISIS is creating an ongoing nervousness about the Middle East in general,” he said, “and we’re continuing to suffer from it, as are our neighbours; one of the things about travel is that it unites all the neighbours. Whenever one part of the Middle East is hurting, its neighbours are hurting as well.”

Steinberg said that to educate agents about the destination, the IGTO will be conducting more FAM trips in the coming year, so that travel professionals can get a first-hand look at the destination.

And when it comes to selling Israel, Steinberg said that travel agents have an advantage over OTAs.

“Israel is such a pure travel agent destination,” Steinberg said. “In an era where agents are seeing so many destinations being sold through online travel agencies, Israel remains a destination where clients want their hand held with someone on the other end of the phone.”