The 2019 annual IMTM (International Mediterranean Tourism Market) exhibition held in Tel Aviv this week brought together more than 50 countries and 20 tourism ministers who marked the Israeli tourist as worth fighting for. The country stands were bigger, and according to the organizers they cost 20% more than last year.
There was an interesting list of countries exhibiting, that included Japan, which substantially expanded its stand, Taiwan, Azerbaijan, Uzbekistan, India (with a separate booth for the state of Kerala), Sri Lanka, Ruanda, and Guatemala. Among the airlines exhibiting was Qantas from Australia, which does not even operate direct flights to Israel, and LATAM, which recently began operating a direct route from Tel Aviv to Brazil and Chile.
What the exhibitors have in common is that they all want Israeli tourists, and it seems they are not wrong: Israelis made 8.5 million overseas trips last year, 12% more than in the previous year. According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, 2.3 million Israelis flew overseas in the summer months, and 40% of those who flew last year spent 5-9 days at their destinations.
Israelis are sought after as tourists not only because they spend more money, but because, unlike European tourists, they fly overseas all year round and not just during the summer and winter vacations, thus filling hotels during the weaker months of the year.
"They come with empty suitcases and fill them in the shops"
"You simply buy like crazy," one of the representatives at Poland's large stand told me. "The amount spent by an Israeli tourist is tens of percentage points higher than the amount spent by European tourists. The Israelis come with an empty suitcase and load up at the shops. They fill the malls, and it's worthwhile not just for those in the tourism industry. Poland is a perfect destination for you."
At Azerbaijan's stand, which was large and impressive, the Azari representative told us with shining eyes that "a taxi from the airport to the city costs 5 euro, and a taxi within the city costs 2 euro." Israelis, the Azaris have also realized, look for a cheap destination. "The number of Israelis visiting us grew 160% in comparison with the previous year. We have hotels of all the big brands, we're very service-minded and warm," he said.
Most Israelis presumably landed in Baku after finding a particularly cheap deal, or heard about this cheap and beautiful destination through word of mouth. Baku in particular, and Azerbaijan in general, are fairly new tourist destinations. The country, which has a population of 10 million, and varied landscapes, from snowy mountains to beaches, managed to attract just 2.8 million tourists in 2018, most of them from Russia and the Gulf states. Now it wants the Israelis, and is offering us a win-win deal: we pay just 5 euros for the taxi, but we come with our deep pockets, and, as is the Israeli habit overseas, hardly count the cost of anything, in a much more extreme way than tourists from other countries. It's no coincidence that Israeli tourists take paying for a suitcase hard, because travelling with just a trolley without loading up with purchases feels like an incomplete vacation.
"The curiosity of Israelis is excellent for us"
It's not just countries offering cheap vacations that are eyeing the Israeli market. Sri Lanka and the Maldives have also spotted the potential, and tour organizers for both these exotic destinations say that the Israelis are "flocking in their thousands."
"We're seeing bookings for 3-4 weeks, for resorts that cost at least $500 a night. This is a vacation that costs thousands of dollars," they told us. "The Israelis are looking for new destinations, and this curiosity is excellent for us," a tour operator to Taiwan says. "We have become a popular destination, and every year we see growth in the number of Israelis who come. It's wonderful, we love you."
Neither Sri Lanka nor the Maldives not Taiwan has direct flights from Israel, which doesn't stop them marketing themselves at full power. Japan is another country without direct flights from here, and, as mentioned, its stand has grown this year. Brochures, maps, and guidebooks in Hebrew are handed out to all comers with a smile and a bow. "Why do you want the Israelis?" I ask. "Your country, with the strictest code of etiquette in existence, won't be able to take Israeli impudence when we flood you."
The representative who stands before me chuckles like someone who know what I'm talking about. He has visited here several times. "The crowd that comes to Japan is different; it's not a cheap destination," he says, and in the same breath explains that in the other direction the situation is different: only 20,000 tourists came from Japan to Israel in 2018. They aren't terribly attracted to the Holy Land, certainly not for religious reasons - the number one motive for most tourists that come here. "In Japan, there is a widespread perception of Israel as a dangerous country… there's much work to do, but we're heading in the right direction," he says optimistically.
So there are no direct flights yet, but from this September Sun d'Or will operate charter flights for Fly East of the Ofakim group from Tel Aviv to Tokyo. If the model succeeds, it could be expanded. The Japanese have been warned.
There's no doubt that it's pleasant to be courted, and it's certainly nice that the countries that interest and intrigue us want us. But the burden of proof is on us: to show that the Israeli tourist can also be an ambassador for Israel, and bring it about that on the plane back to Israel there will also be tourists from Japan and Azerbaijan.
Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on February 14, 2019
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