Most seasoned travelers know to watch out for scams like scenic taxi rides and overpriced "authentic" souvenirs, but the thousands of tourists who arrived at Ben-Gurion International Airport this week for Passover were at risk of being ripped off before even leaving the terminal.
Exchange rates at recently opened branches of a private money-changer are about 10 percent lower - worse for travelers buying shekels - than they are at the airport branches of Bank Hapoalim, an investigation by Haaretz has discovered. The rates, which the company's manager admitted have already been altered three times at the request of the Israel Airports Authority, are even lower compared to those at money-changers outside of Ben-Gurion.
A spokesperson for the IAA acknowledged that it received a complaint in late February about the rates at Global Exchange, a Spanish-owned company that opened four branches at Ben-Gurion on January 1. Following an inquiry by Haaretz this week, the IAA placed multilingual signs in front of branches of Global Exchange and Bank Hapoalim, urging travelers to compare rates at the two companies before making a transaction.
But last week, before the signs had gone up, travelers were on their own. Morris Levy from Paris changed 100 euros at Global Exchange at a rate of 4.32 shekels to the euro. After a NIS 25 commission, he was left with NIS 60 less than he would have received across the arrivals hall at Bank Hapoalim (4.86 shekels to the euro, minus commission ) and NIS 80 less than at a typical money-changer in Tel Aviv (4.90, no commission ).
"I've been conned," Levy said in French when informed by a reporter of the discrepancy. "I used to change money [at the airport] but the difference with the bank wasn't so big. I don't know why it's so big now."
In December, Global Exchange bid NIS 24 million for a tender from the IAA to replace Change Place, which had operated at Ben-Gurion since 2004. Global Exchange's contract is valid for six years, with the option to extend another two years, and includes IAA regulation of commission fees but not exchange rates.
Marcos Barchilon, the general manager of Global Exchange in Israel, said in an interview that the IAA allows the company to set its rates freely based on supply and demand. "We're learning about the Israeli market and trying to level the prices according to the Israeli standard," he said. "I am not stealing money from anyone here. This company is losing money. I have to pay a hell of a lot of money for rent, so I have to find my benefit."
In a subsequent statement to Haaretz, Global Exchange defended its buying rates compared to those of Bank Hapoalim. "Our company exclusively provides foreign currency exchange services, so we must face the high costs of our presence at Ben-Gurion Airport using the revenues obtained from this activity," the statement said.
According to its website, the company currently operates 105 branches in 35 international airports in Latin America and the Caribbean, as well as in Morocco, Spain and now Israel. In addition to providing friendly customer service, Barchilon said, the company is open 24 hours a day, publishes its rates on electronic screens behind the counter (but in two rows, "buying" and "selling," which can be confusing to customers ) and has a 15-day refund policy on all transactions with the original receipt. Customers appreciate these services despite the higher costs involved in providing them, Barchilon said.
Luis De Bonito, project manager for Global Exchange, explained that while the company's buying rates are not as favorable to tourists arriving at Ben-Gurion, its selling rates for amounts above 300 are slightly more competitive than those at Bank Hapoalim. "We want to protect the local customers who are flying out of Israel for business," he said.
The Tourism Ministry acknowledged on Wednesday that it was aware of the exchange rates at Global Exchange and that it had directed the IAA to put up the signs. "We are prevented from recommending private services and therefore draw the tourist's attention to the different foreign exchange options on offer," the ministry said.
As a trickle of customers approached the counter of Global Exchange in the arrivals hall yesterday afternoon, Barchilon expressed his dismay over the appearance of the sign. "I don't think that when you go to a shopping center and there are two jewelry shops, that the town hall puts up signs saying there are two shops," Barchilon said. "[The IAA] had their right, but I don't think that it's fair."
Of course, signs or no signs, most people are in no position to conduct a thorough review of exchange rates and commission fees after stepping bleary-eyed off an airplane. "We didn't have time to think of our own names, let alone compare rates," said Edward Johnson, who flew in from Charlotte, North Carolina, and exchanged some "emergency funds" at Bank Hapoalim.
Indeed, for many travelers who arrive at Ben-Gurion, expediency often wins out over prudence. Masha Buymistrov of Tel Aviv explained that her friend Oxana Mayorova, who traveled from Great Britain to compete in the Tel Aviv half-marathon last Friday, changed money at Global Exchange against her advice.
"I live here so I recommend that relatives and friends who visit not change money at the airport," Buymistrov said. "I don't know why she did." Mayorova's response: "I needed coffee."
Tourists who can wait for their caffeine fix in town have two commission-free options: the post office and the motley assortment of independent money changers. (The major banks provide currency exchange services to account holders only. )
A review last week of a dozen money-changers across Tel Aviv found that buying rates for the three major currencies were within a few percentage points of each other. For example, at "Change" at 92 Allenby, which doubles as a cell phone store, the rates were as follows: 3.70 shekels to the U.S. dollar, 4.91 shekels to the euro, and 5.80 shekels to the pound sterling, with no commission. The line of customers was out the door, though most were interested in the phones.
Down the street at a money-changer-cum-electronics store, the rates were 3.65, 4.89 and 5.84 respectively, no commission. Depending on the mood of the proprietor and number of witnesses, bargaining may also be possible at some Tel Aviv money-changers. This is the Middle East, after all.
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