China is a growing tourist market source for Israel. [Image: Shutterstock]

Israeli tourism, down in recent months, is expecting a boost from an unlikely source: a growing number of Chinese and Indian visitors. Tourism Ministry Director-General Amir Halevi told Reuters news agency that both sectors have shown growth at a time when tourism in general has declined, and both are being targeted by the ministry for promotion.

Following Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014, during which Israel responded to repeated rocket fire from Gaza with airstrikes which killed over 2,100 Palestinians, tourism rates fell 3 percent to 3.1 million visitors in 2015. The barrage of rockets during the six-week operation frightened some foreigners, prompting them to cancel planned trips, and forced the temporary closure of Israel’s Ben Gurion International Airport, interrupting flights. A weak Russian economy also contributed to the declining numbers.

Visits from China and India in that time, however, appear to have been on the rise. Fifty thousand Chinese tourists arrived in Israel in 2015, up 43 percent, and the ministry predicts that number will double by 2018. Non-stop flights from Beijing to Tel Aviv starting next month, provided by Hainan Airlines, will help by adding 35,000 seats per year along the route already flown by Israel’s national carrier, El Al.

“This will change the game,” Halevi told Reuters. “The price of tickets will go down 50 percent.”

In addition, Israel and China agreed last week to a ten-year multiple visa deal, similar to the ones China has reached with the United States and Canada. This would allow visitors between the two countries to enter repeatedly on the same visa.

Chinese interest in Israel is growing, Halevi noted, with 170 people from China participating in last month’s Jerusalem Marathon, up from six the year before.

Until recently, Haaretz noted last year, Chinese tourism to Israel was severely restricted. Only official delegations were permitted to visit. That changed a few years ago when the Chinese government recognized Israel as an official destination, allowing organized tour groups to travel to the Jewish State.

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Although many Chinese tourists are drawn by a fascination with the Start-Up Nation, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict or Israel’s unique natural phenomena, there are also a significant number of Christian pilgrims intent on seeing the Holy Land with their own eyes. Official figures place the Chinese Christian community at 26 million strong, while scholarly estimates place the number closer to 100 million.

To accommodate Chinese tourists, the ministry has opened a course in Chinese for certified tour guides. By the end of 2016, Israel is expected to have 70 such certified Chinese-speaking tour guides. It has also invested significant sums in promoting Israel to Chinese travelers, including maintaining a Chinese-language page on its website.

Meanwhile, Indian tourism to Israel is also on the rise. Last year, nearly 40,000 visitors arrived in Israel from India, representing a 13 percent increase. The ministry target for 2018 is 80,000 to 100,000 Indian tourists.

Like Hainan Airlines, Indian air carriers have expressed interest in adding flights to Tel Aviv. According to Halevi, if the numbers keep rising, it is likely at least one will join El Al in providing that service.

Some Indian visitors come to Israel to vacation, while others come on religious pilgrimages. India is home to nearly 30 million Christians, the third-largest religious population in the country. In 2013, the Israeli Tourism Ministry opened an office in Mumbai, working to promote Israel as a viable tourist destination for Indian tourists.

Among the factors which discourage tourists, Halevi said, are the high costs of flights and hotels. The ministry, however, is seeking international hotel chains to build low-cost facilities.

Halevi added that he believes a convention center and casino in the tourist city of Eilat in Israel’s south would bring in more tourists, though the casino plan was met with political resistance.

Tourism plays a significant part in Israel’s economy, supplying 2.5 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. It contributes over 40 billion shekels ($11 billion) to the Israeli economy annually, and employs 200,000 people, or three percent of Israel’s workforce.

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Source: Israel in the News