Israel Courts Indian Tourists With Celebrities and Vegetarian Food

Eighteen million Indian tourists sweep across the globe every year. The Tourism Ministry thinks it’s about time to market Israel to them as something more than the Holy Land.

Indian movie star Sonam Kapoor visiting Jerusalem’s Old City, July 2016.
Ammar Awad, Reuters

Not many Israelis would recognize her, but in India, Sonam Kapoor, who visited Israel last month, is considered to be one of the greatest and most important movie stars. This is why the Tourism Ministry decided to invite her here to visit tourist sites across the country, including Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea.

The idea behind the visit was simple. A few Instagram and Snapchat photos from the Holy Land posted by the Bollywood star, along with a few stories covering her trip to Israel, would bring about the result of presenting Israel as a desirable tourist destination for Indians.

It’s hard to ignore a country which sent forth 18 million tourists in 2014. The number of Indian tourists has been on the rise for several years, with a 70% growth since 2008. Like any other country that depends on tourism among its sources of income, Israel wants to tap into this market, especially when the tourists are middle class or even more affluent ones who tend to leave behind more money than average. According to Tourism Ministry figures, Indian tourists to Israel spend 8% more on average than other tourists, even though they spend less time here.

Kapoor wasn’t the only influential personality to recently visit Israel from India with the aim of promoting tourism. “Never thought of travelling Israel but after reading your amazing post this is first on my list,” responded one follower of a blog written by Indian journalist and author Aditi Mathur Kumar. The blog describes her experiences while visiting Israel last month in a very attractive light. Kumar was also a guest of the Tourism Ministry, as part of an attempt to market Israel to Indians. The response is exactly what was hoped for, only multiplied by tens of thousands. “Today as I sit at the Ben Gurion Airport, ready to leave, I feel strangely emotional and strongly attached to beautiful Israel and its warm people. I wish I visit again," was how Kumar summarized her trip to Israel. “I am officially in love with this stunning country.”

Indian travel agents weren’t familiar with Israel

In 2013, the Tourism Ministry decided to open a bureau in India with a relatively small budget of one million shekels (just over $250,000). Its manager, Hassan Madah, admits that the bureau only became operational last year, having dealt with logistics and setting up the office before that. In that early phase, one Israeli agent handled 70% to 80% of the tourist market from India to Israel. To change this, 600 Indian tour agents were brought to Israel last year for a designated conference focusing on marketing Israel to Hindu Indians who have no religious affinity to the Holy land.

70% of Indian tourists decide on their destinations based on recommendations of local tour agents. “We realized that Indian tour agents didn’t know Israel at all. All they did was sell ‘Holy Land’ packages to Christian Indians, since they weren’t familiar with other aspects of Israel such as the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv or Eilat,” says Madah. “We talked to them about historical and cultural tours. Indians consume alcohol and love night life. We showed them we’re a society that is open to that. We started marketing a different kind of Israel and they were really enthusiastic." In addition, he says, they "presented the abundance of vegetarian and vegan restaurants that are available here but not in other countries, which is a consideration for Indian tourists.”

The budget for the Indian bureau grew slightly in 2015, to 2 million shekels. In comparison, the budget for marketing Israel in China, another target of the Tourism Ministry, stands at 15 million shekels. In fact, until recently there was no advertising campaign for Indian tourism to Israel —the first one is to be launched shortly. All the activity so far has focused on public relations, seminars and the signing of agreements with wholesalers who advertise their own packages, so that the marketing was done by them, not by the bureau.

These activities haven’t borne much fruit so far and the number of Indian tourists hasn’t grown. In 2012, before the opening of the bureau, 43,000 tourists from India visited Israel. Last year there were only 39,000.

“The growth was blunted due to the devaluation of the rupee. When currencies fall, tourism is the first industry to be hit,” says Madah. “In 2014 there were elections in India during the months of April to June, which are the months tourists go abroad. Then there was Operation Protective Edge and the knife intifada. Regional problems such as Syria also had a negative impact. If there are no similar security events such as Protective Edge, there will be a 10% to 15% increase in the number of Indian tourists to Israel.”

“Until recently Israeli wholesalers didn’t want to deal with Indian tourists since these were mainly pilgrims who didn’t bring them much money, but we’re gradually changing the mix of tourists,” adds Madah. “Maybe the numbers aren’t growing a lot but we’re starting to see rich tourists with more money, and businessmen who want to return here with their families.”

Still wary of having their passports stamped

There are other problems that prevent a big uptick in the number of Indian tourists. One is the visa requirement. European countries offer a visa within 48 hours, but Israel takes 7 days to issue one. “Indians are renowned for their last-minute reservations," says Madah. "They decide on their destination two to three weeks in advance, so if they have to wait a week for a visa while [for] Germany, Switzerland or Britain they get it in two days, it’s obvious that they’ll prefer to go there.”

Another obstacle is a misconception that’s become entrenched in the minds of many Indians, who believe that an Israeli stamp in their passport means they won’t be able to visit the Gulf States.

In addition to the bureaucratic issues which affect the decision to visit Israel, the cost of the vacation has great impact as well. In addition to high hotel prices — which affect all tourists considering a visit here, not just Indians — there are also the high costs of plane tickets. El Al is the only carrier with direct flights, and the monopoly enables it to set prices without competition.

It’s reasonable to assume that prices would drop if there were other airlines operating between the two countries. Two months ago, the CEO of Arkia, Nir Dagan, visited India to look into the possibility of launching flights between the two countries, but this won’t happen soon. So far, with large Indian airlines such as Air India and Jet Airways only talking about opening such links, El AL will continue to dominate this route and set the price as it wishes.

Young family members determine vacation destinations

“The potential for Indian tourism is there, unfulfilled,” says David Ness, an expert on the Indian market and a managing partner at BDO Haft Ziv, a leading accounting and consulting firm. “A growth in the number of tourists from there is expected, but many Indians still prefer to travel to closer destinations. They’ve recently started going to Greece, Turkey and Egypt, which could be combined with a visit to Israel. Israel is small, which is an advantage for them, since they can cover it in a few days. This could be a marketing angle.”

According to Ness, there is an increasing trend for younger members of Indian families to decide on the holiday destination. This is where there is a potential for growth, and where marketing efforts should be aimed. “Bringing 600 agents here and opening a bureau in India is a drop in the bucket,” he argues. “With all the trouble of getting a visa, expensive flights and the high costs of vacationing here, and with the availability of other destinations with fewer requirements, why would they insist on coming to Israel?”

Hotels also realize that it’s in their interest to invest in India. After the conference for Indian travel agents last year, "we thought there would be a large increase in the number of tourists from India,” says Shai Doitsh, marketing and sales director at the Arcadia Hotel chain. “We didn’t see this right away. We looked for our weaknesses and found that we needed to address culinary issues. We constructed a designated menu for Indian tourists, with six dishes they’re familiar with. Since then there has been more interest. There hasn’t been a big jump in numbers, but ever since Israeli travel agents told their Indian counterparts about this, there has been more interest and more requests from groups and overall better responses. I hope we’ll see a bigger surge later this year.”

Doitsh adds that despite the chain’s efforts to encourage tourism from India, it doesn’t only depend on hoteliers. "Just like the Chinese market, the Indian one has great potential," he says. "The way to tap into it is to integrate the operations of different ministries, which should make it easier to obtain a visa and lead to cheaper flights by opening additional routes, as well as by making hotels more amenable to Indian guests.”

Oren Tubul, deputy CEO for marketing at the Crowne Plaza hotel chain, reports that from 2014 to 2015 there was a 60% increase in the number of overnight stays by Indian tourists and a 72% increase in revenues from this source. He also mentions the dining issue. Indians want the food they’re used to, and salads aren’t considered a vegetarian meal. “The problem with Indian guests is the food," Tubul says. "For dinner we take them to authentic Indian restaurants. These aren’t the usual tourists, but ones with demands. They know exactly what they want. They aren’t easy guests and have many demands, such as upgraded rooms and preferred foods. With 5,000 stayovers throughout our chain we can’t ignore them. They come for relatively long periods of 4-5 nights, which is why we want them.”