It’s barely 7 A.M., but the dining room at a well-known Jerusalem hotel is already filled to capacity.
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Dozens of Chinese tourists are checking out the huge buffet spread, in most cases passing on the cheeses and raw veggies and opting instead for the more familiar cooked eggs.
On the other side of the room, a group of Indonesian tourists is sitting around a table engaged in lively chatter. Their breakfast plates are largely untouched, and the excitement starts when a woman retrieves a bag of exotic-looking snacks from under her seat and passes them around.
For Israeli hotels, adapting menus to suit the tastes of guests like these - travelers from distant lands not typically seen in these parts, at least not until quite recently - has become quite the challenge.
Many of these guests are not exactly enthralled by the world-famous Israeli breakfast, which is a rather sobering experience for Israel’s hoteliers. But at the same time, these new visitors are keeping the local tourism industry above water these days.
Meet the new tourists flocking to Israel’s shores. They’re part of an emerging new class of world travelers from places like Angola, Congo, China, Ethiopia, Ghana, India, Indonesia, Ivory Coast, Malaysia and Mozambique.
And they’re prompting the government and the local tourism industry to scramble to adapt.
Religion, high tech and politics
For some tourists, it’s the religious sites that are the main draw to the Holy Land. For others, it’s Israel’s high-tech prowess and agricultural finesse. For yet others, it’s an opportunity to get a first-hand view of places they hear about on the nightly news.
At one time Israel’s tourism industry relied on two key markets: white Christian pilgrims and Jews.
No longer: Incoming tourism from Asia, specifically China and India, as well as Africa has skyrocketed in recent years. Although still a small fraction of the total, it’s accounting for an increasing slice of the pie.
According to the Ministry of Tourism, tourists from China to Israel totaled 33,000 in 2014, more than triple the 9.800 in 2000. Almost 35,000 tourists from India visited Israel last year, twice the 15,900 of 2000.
Another 26,700 came from Indonesia - a country with which Israel does not have diplomatic relations - nearly three times the 9,800 in 2000.
The numbers from Africa aren’t that large in absolute terms but are rising rapidly. Tourist arrivals from African countries listed in the “other” category (all countries aside from South Africa, Kenya, Nigeria, and North Africa) totaled 17,000 last year, compared with 9,000 in 2000.
Perhaps even more significant is that unlike the traditional markets of North America and Europe, these new markets were hardly affected by Israel’s 50-day war with Gaza this summer, when large swaths of the country were under constant rocket barrage.
“Ever since July, the tourism industry has been in a state of crisis,” reports Oded Grofman, deputy director-general of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators’ Association.
“But quite incredibly, those countries where Israel requires visas - China, India and Africa, primarily - have been virtually untouched. In fact, tourism from China grew 30 percent in 2014 compared with the previous year.”
Grofman attributes this behavior to a relative lack of engagement with events in the Middle East.
“They don’t follow the news in Israel every day, like many American Jews do,” he says. “And that probably explains why they’re less sensitive to what’s going on here, and why American Jews are more likely to cancel their trips here than they are.”
Rapid economic development
According to Grofman, the big spike in tourism from these countries in recent years results primarily from rapid economic development.
“Many people in these countries for the first time have the means to travel,” he notes. “Israel isn’t necessarily their first choice as a destination, but once they’ve been around, it’s definitely a place they want to come see.”
China is considered Israel’s top growth market these days, and with roughly 85 million Chinese traveling abroad annually, local tour operators say they’ve barely touched the tip of the iceberg.
A major boost came several years ago when the Chinese government recognized Israel as an official destination, opening the way for organized tour groups to travel to the country. Until then, only official delegations were allowed to come.
The Israel Tourism Ministry has since invested huge sums in promoting Israel as a destination in China. Among other activities, it’s opened a new course in Chinese for certified tour guides. Israel now has 30 Chinese-speaking tour guides, still way too few to accommodate current demand, with another 40 expected to join the list by the end of 2016.
The ministry also has created a special Chinese-language website. The local industry is taking note as well, with a growing number of Israeli tour operators now assigning full-time staffers to the Chinese market.
“Unlike the United States and Europe, in China there’s only love for Israel,” says Tourism Minister Uzi Landau.
Needed: Chinese-speaking tour guides
Responding to growing demand for Chinese-speaking tour guides, the Tourism Ministry last year opened a first-ever course for tour guides that targets Chinese speakers.
On a recent evening, roughly 40 participants in this course were sitting in a specially designated classroom at a Tel Aviv high school, taking notes on the major attractions of the Red Sea resort town of Eilat. About half the participants were native-born Israelis fluent in Chinese - whether through their studies or travel - and the rest were Chinese women who had become citizens by virtue of marrying Israeli men.
Another development sure to dramatically boost tourism from China is the addition of new direct flights between the two countries.
Today, the Israeli carrier El Al is the only airline that operates direct flights to China. But under an agreement expected to take effect in September, Hainan Airlines, the largest privately owned Chinese airline, will begin operating three direct flights to Israel a week.
India also is seen as having huge potential for the local tourism industry, for many of the same reasons as China. This week, the Travel Agents Federation of India for the first time is holding its annual conference in Jerusalem, with roughly 600 travel agents attending.
After identifying India as a significant market for Israeli tourism, the Tourism Ministry last year opened an office in Mumbai.
Another factor explaining the recent surge in tourist arrivals from Asia and Africa has been an overhaul of the visa-application system.
Until just a few years ago, tourists from countries requiring a visa to Israel had to apply on their own at the nearest consul or embassy, which could often be thousands of miles away.
The Ministry of Interior eventually agreed to allow tourists on organized trips to apply collectively through tour operators in Israel for group visas, an expedited process that relieves much of the headache.
China and Startup Nation
Much, but not all, of this new tourism is Christian in nature. Tour operators say that a primary motivation for Chinese tourists to visit Israel is to get a close-up view of Startup Nation. Other factors: to see the hot spots of the political conflict as well as the country’s unique nature spots.
“The Dead Sea is a must for them,” volunteers Yoram Blank, director of Holyland Tours, who was waiting for a group of 72 Chinese business people to arrive later in the day.
“But they also ask to see the Golan Heights because they’re aware of the conflict in Syria, and they want to see what’s going on with their own eyes.”
Yang Cheng, the Chinese-market manager at Ophir Tours-Peltours, says she also receives requests from Chinese visitors to see the controversial wall that separates Israel from the West Bank.
“Those Chinese who don’t come on pilgrimage tours, they don’t really need a lot of time in Jerusalem,” she says. “Neither is Tel Aviv a big deal for them because most of them come from really big cities, so I have to lower their expectations in advance about Tel Aviv. But the Dead Sea – they love that.”
Married to an Israeli and living in Israel for the past five years, Cheng speaks fluent Hebrew and until recently worked as a tour guide with Chinese groups.
Aside from not speaking English, another special challenge such groups present, she says, is a general lack of adventurism when it comes to matters of food.
“These groups need to be provided with at least one Chinese meal a day,” Cheng says, noting that a number of fast-food restaurants that seat big groups and cook up Chinese specialties have begun sprouting up around the country to address this need.
According to Ariel Rotstein, director of Sar-El Tours, hotels here have also begun to play around with their menus, hoping to please these new customers.
Some, for example, have begun introducing Chinese staples like rice into their breakfast spreads at least several mornings a week.
And it’s not only the Chinese whose food needs must be accommodated.
“Who knew? But it turns out that Malaysians aren’t too crazy about our hummus,” says Danny Amir, director of Vered Hasharon, an Israeli tour operator with branches in Europe, Asia and Africa. “And there we were thinking everyone loved it.”
Africa and Israeli insensitivity
Amir’s company is among the most active these days in Africa, where he estimates business has grown eight- to tenfold in recent years. He particularly cites new markets like Burkina Faso, Congo, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Kenya, Senegal, Tanzania, Togo, Uganda, Zambia and Zimbabwe.
Nigeria has long been a major market in Africa for local tour operators, but primarily because the government there subsidizes trips to Israel for Christian pilgrims.
His African clients, says Amir, have no problems with Israeli cuisine, as their diet is also based on lots of fresh produce. What presents a challenge, he says, is a basic lack of cultural sensitivity among Israelis and a tendency to stereotype people with dark skin.
“Africans tend to be very scarred from years of racial prejudice, and Israelis sometimes make mistakes because they don’t know any better,” he says. “For example, you still have Israelis who ask things like ‘What, Africans have money?’”
Amir relates the story of a tour operator in Zimbabwe who sent a group of 20 tourists to Israel through a local agent she found on the Internet. She described the group to her Israeli counterpart as the “crème de la crème.”
Except that the local agent, apparently ignorant of the fact that people in Africa might be well to do, booked them accommodations in a cheap hostel, with five to a room.
“It took me an entire day to convince that agent in Zimbabwe that she should do business with Israel again,” Amir recounts.