Israel Starts Thinking Smarter About How to Attract More Tourists

Marketing no longer focuses on pilgrims, and celebrity bloggers get free trips

File photo: An Israeli tourism campaign poster from Amsterdam
Ministry of Tourism

Travelers arriving at the airport in Warsaw in recent months were greeted by an unusual pitch on a passenger jet belonging to the Polish Lot Airlines: “Tel Aviv, Jerusalem – two cities, one holiday” with a picture of the Tel Aviv beachfront.

That a Polish airline was promoting travel to Israel is part of the new strategy adopted by Israel’s Tourism Ministry to lure visitors to Israel. Israel not only convinced Lot to promote Israel travel on its jets but is providing millions of shekels in marketing assistance. Lot opened its first routes to Israel last year and now has 19 flights weekly from five Polish cities.

Since Yariv Levin took over as tourism minister, he has leveraged his close relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to squeeze more money out of the treasury for marketing. His ministry has 440 million shekels ($126.5 million) to spend this year, twice as much as in 2016.

Tourist arrivals are set to show an increase of 24% this year, and ministry officials like to take credit for that. The absence of a major with the increase as does the Open Skies aviation agreement with Europe that increased competition. But the ministry is doing its bit, too.

“There’s no doubt that the subsidies the Tourism Ministry are giving the airlines brought an increase in tourism to Israel this year,” said one industry executive who asked not to be identified.

He’s more skeptical about the advertising strategy the ministry has pursued. “Their overseas campaigns, like the ones starring the model Shir Elimelech isn’t worth anything, The temporary quiet Israel has enjoyed is what makes the difference.”

Effective or not, there have been big changes in the way Israel markets itself to the world in the last two years. Industry sources say marketing was dull and overly focused on Christian pilgrims.

“Thinking was frozen and no one was motivated to make any big changes,” admitted Lior Farber, communications adviser to Levin. “Everyone was satisfied with what we had because any change would have involved a battle with the Transportation Ministry and the treasury budget divisions.”

Beside Levin’s coming to the tourism portfolio, another critical factor was the departure of Oren Drori, who had been deputy director general and head of tourism marketing for nine years. The post remained unfilled for 18 months until last February when Hilit Meged Bergbaum, took over.

She comes from the advertising business, where she worked for the French-based Publicis Groupe, and uses the vocabulary of the private sector to describe the changes underway. She is planning a “tourism branding” unit that will have brand managers like consumer-goods companies that will be responsible for segments like a “City Break” package of a quick trip to Israel’s two biggest cities. Another will be for Eilat and another for pilgrims.

The new message is that Israel isn’t just the Holy Land for Christian tourists. Amir Halevy recalls the first campaign he approved as the ministry’s director general, “Israel, once in a lifetime,” which he now admits was a mistake.

“The campaign was directed at pilgrims who believe they should come to Israel once at least in their lives instead of telling everyone that there are so many attractions,” he said. The City Break pitch represents the new thinking.

Critics say that the new concept ignores the potential for attracting more Christian tourism. It also means visitors spend all their money in just two cities and typically spend less than long-term visitors. But ministry officials said City Break travel lures more independent tourists who spread the word to friends and are faster to resume traveling to Israel after a war than tour groups.

Another new approach is to abandon the strategy of blindly buying banner ads on travel websites without regard to effectiveness. In the last year, the ministry is now giving bonus payments for ads with online travel agencies, like Priceline.com and Expedia, to increased bookings for visits to Israel.

The payments to airlines are another big element of the strategy. Israel was late in the game in awarding airlines grants for opening new routes to the country. Halevy recalls that when he first broached the idea of awarding the payments to carriers agreeing to land in Eilat, a Transportation Ministry official walked out, saying airlines weren’t interested in the city as a destination.

The fee, which the airlines use for marketing, ranges between 250,000 euros ($300,000) per weekly flight to Ben-Gurion International Airport. In the 2016-17 season, Lot got 1.8 million euros for six flights, and visits from Poland in the first 10 months of the year were up 61% from the same time a year earlier.

“I’m not so sure the money is so dramatic from their point of view, but it caused their financial analysts to look for the first time into the business case for flying to Israel – and then they understood is was worth their while,” said Farber.

Flying celebrities and opinion leaders to Israel for free has always been a component of tourism marketing, but until now there was a little thought about who they were: Anyone who was regarded as an influential figure who requested a complimentary trip got one, and that numbered about 3,000 a year.

The new strategy is to limit the number to half that and for the ministry to pick strategically who should be flown over. “The goal is to prefer quality over quantity,” said Meged Bergbaum. “We’re investing in bloggers and digital opinion leaders. They have a serious impact.”