Nee Wong
A guide showing the ropes to Chinese tourists in Jerusalem. Photo by Michal Fattal
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The Tourism Ministry forecasts that the number of Chinese visitors will surge 60% this year to 40,000 as Israel tries to take a bigger bite into the more than $100 billion that Chinese tourists spend annually.

More than three years ago, then-Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov prioritized  tourism from China. Since then, tourist arrivals from the Middle Kingdom have increased between 20% and 30% annually, but the numbers are minuscule compared to the 100 million Chinese who took overseas trips last year.

Israel is particularly targeting middle- and upper-class tourists as well as Chinese Christians. In 2012, the Chinese tourist’s average spending per day in Israel was $286 (not including souvenirs) — higher than for visitors from any other country. Overall, Chinese tourists spent $102 billion on overseas travel.

As part of the government’s efforts, Tourism Minister Uzi Landau will head a delegation to China in June that will include executives from the Israeli airline and hotel industries. The 20 or so Israelis will study the needs of Chinese tourists, seek to develop ties with travel wholesalers in China, and address barriers to growth in Chinese tourism to the Holy Land.

A big barrier is the red tape in issuing tourist visas to Chinese citizens, something the Tourism Ministry aims to simplify.

“Our challenge is to dramatically reduce the amount of time — currently as much as a month — that it takes a Chinese tourist to obtain an Israeli visa,” Landau said. “To accomplish this, we are in touch with the [Israeli] immigration authorities, the Interior Ministry and the embassy in China.”

Another major impediment is El Al Israel Airlines’ monopoly on nonstop flights to and from China.

“We’ve had several discussions with the head of the Chinese aviation authority about more direct flights to Israel, and we’ll be appointing a special adviser precisely for that purpose — adding another airline to fly directly from China. More direct routes could change the entire picture,” Landau said, adding that efforts were being made to add a weekly charter flight from Shanghai.

The ministry is also near completion of a special film designed to draw Chinese tourists to Israel.

The ministry is also trying to address the shortage of Israeli tour guides who speak Chinese. To this end, it is  providing 50% scholarships for guides to study languages for which speakers are in short supply. The ministry has also launched its own Chinese classes for tour guides.