Israel is swiftly becoming a hot new attraction for Indian tourists.
Israeli Tourism Ministry figures showed an 82 percent increase in the number of Indians visiting the country during the first half of 2018, compared to the previous three years.
Hassan Madah, director of the ministry’s India and Philippines department, says a series of factors have led to the sharp rise. These include simplification of the visa process for Indian tourists, lower visa fees, easier access and increased awareness of tourist attractions in Israel.
“Many Indians knew Israel only through the mainstream media – and they showed only the conflict part,” Madah tells Haaretz. “Once we started our campaign [in 2017], Indians started to realize the tourism aspect of Israel – which then opened their eyes. After all, Israel is not only about the Holy Land and conflict. There is also fun, people and history.”
Among the 40,000 Indians who visited Israel between this January and June, the peak came in May – which is traditionally vacation season for Indians.
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The visitors, many looking to keep costs down, range from pilgrims (nearly half of all the tourists, based on Tourism Ministry data), sightseers and students to or businesspeople staying on as tourists after attending conferences.
Yet many of them appear to be drawn by the heritage-rich sights of Jerusalem or the surreal experience of the Dead Sea. Tourists visit places such as Tel Aviv, Haifa, the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum, the Mount of Olives, the Chapel of the Ascension, the Western Wall, Temple Mount – and even the Golan Heights and the Gaza border region.
Although there are no official figures, the majority of Indian tourists are believed to arrive in Israel independently rather than on group tours.
Shukti Basu visited Israel recently. She says the public transport system in Israel proved to be convenient and she didn’t need to hire a car (even though many Israeli cities do not have public transportation on Shabbat). “The country is safe for a solo traveler,” she adds.
National carrier Air India recently launched a direct flight between New Delhi and Tel Aviv. Eyeing more traffic in the foreseeable future, the airline has also increased the frequency of its flights, to four times a week. Its route also significantly cuts down the flight time compared to competitor El Al, since the Indian operator has permission to use Saudi airspace.
The healthy diplomatic ties between the two countries also contributed to the tourism boom, thanks to the simplification of the visa application process and reduction of visa fees. When Narendra Modi became the first Indian prime minister to visit Israel, in July 2017, he laid a strong foundation for strengthening bilateral relations by signing several agreements.
Indians have also become increasingly aware of the Holy Land due to the large number of Israeli tourists visiting their homeland in recent decades. On average, over 40,000 Israelis visit India annually.
“I came to understand that the average Israeli citizen has planned to or already traveled to India at least once,” says Ravi Maurya, who recently visited Israel for business. “Since they serve in the army after they finish school, India is one of the most common destinations they choose to visit, for at least a month or more,” he says.
The Israeli Tourism Ministry says some 60,000 Indian tourists visited Israel in 2017 – a 48 percent increase on the previous year – and expects that figure to be closer to 100,000 this year.
Yet this remains a drop in the ocean compared to the 25 million Indians who traveled abroad last year (a number tipped to reach 50 million by 2020, according to the UN World Tourism Organization) or the 3.6 million people who visited Israel from other parts of the world in 2017.
Still, Indian tourists Haaretz has spoken to seem impressed by what they have found in Israel.
“I have traveled to more than 10 countries the world over and spent time exploring people, places, cultures and cuisines – and I would rate Israel as my best experience so far,” says Abhiram Muddu, an Indian who currently lives in New York, citing the country’s rich heritage as the deciding factor.
Vishnu Rajeev, a self-described culture tourist, echoes those views, adding that one of his intentions when making the trip to Israel was to better understand the country’s conflict with the Palestinians.
“As a student of public policy, understanding the Palestinian conflict from the Israeli perspective was very important to me,” he explains. “I have heard the Palestinian narrative many times, but hardly ever the Israeli one.”
Madah says Israel’s tourism campaign for India will be even more energetic in the coming months, with several road shows in the pipeline (maybe up to a dozen around India by the end of the year). “Some things we can talk about, some things we’ll keep as a surprise,” he smiles.
Hooray for Bollywood
During Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s six-day tour of India in January, he signed nine major agreements with his counterpart, Narendra Modi, to boost bilateral trade and cooperation. Bolstering the tourism sector also featured prominently on Netanyahu’s to-do list.
As part of the outreach, Netanyahu hosted a special dinner event in Mumbai for Bollywood’s major players, inviting filmmakers and producers to make their movies in Israel. “We want Bollywood in Israel. We are putting our money where our mouth is,” Netanyahu told them.
Two months prior to his visit to India, the cast and crew of Bollywood film “Drive” touched down in Israel, where they shot a scene for their upcoming comedy action in Tel Aviv-Jaffa. The film is directed by Bollywood heavyweight Karan Johar and is set to open in India this September.
Madah says he hopes the scene, which is by all accounts a typically extravagant Bollywood song, “will boost the image of Israel in India.” The Tourism Ministry is reportedly offering tax incentives to encourage Indian filmmakers to shoot in Israel.
Big Bollywood names currently thought to be exploring the possibility of shooting in Israel include director Imtiaz Ali, and actors Ranbir Kapoor, Alia Bhatt and Ayan Mukherjee. All have visited Israel separately to scout locations, though no project is finalized as yet.
The Tourism Ministry’s charm offensive to woo the multimillion dollar Indian film industry could also prove a crucial factor in developing cultural ties between Israel and India – which in turn could further boost tourism numbers.