“Gal and I are going to tell you your story for this coming summer. Are you with me? Great. Now close your eyes and start imagining.” Thus begins an Israir Young ad, selling package tours to Israeli teens. The video shows a bunch of teenagers excitedly watching other videos of other teenagers having a blast on some Greek beach, involving bare-chested boys handing drinks to girls in bikinis who bob and blow kisses in front of the camera. And all this fun, fun, fun is just two hours away by plane.
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Every summer, tens of thousands of young Israelis head for nearby “party island” resorts — notably in Greece, (island-free) Bulgaria and Cyprus. They buy packages that include the flight and hotel, and typically costing anywhere from $400 to $800 for five nights. Upon landing, the youngsters — typically aged 16 to 18 — are met by representatives of the tour company, such as Israir Young, Issta Crazy Summer or the teen packages of Flying Carpet.
The representatives — youngsters themselves, aged between 21 to 28 — are the “responsible adult” and are charged with providing services to the teens, explaining local currency and security issues, and making sure the kids get what the package promised.
In reality, though, these representatives are actually selling other services. Having helped the teens check into the hotel, they will start hawking “party packages,” including entry to parties (sometimes two a day) and drinks (never mind that some of the kids haven’t reached the legal drinking age) for an extra $225 to $450.
“Driving from the airport, we felt the tour company representative was deliberately going through the seedier, more hazardous parts of the island, and we didn’t understand why he was rubbishing his own destination,” says Amitai, 17, just back from the Greek island resort of Zakynthos. At the hotel, the representative showed up again to explain that the package they’d bought wasn’t exactly what they might think: there were no parties or nightlife on Zakynthos itself. But he could sell them tickets to the “only parties worth anything.”
Amitai paid 220 euros ($250) for the party package from the company representative on Zakynthos. “After the first night, we realized we could go to the parties the foreign tourists attend by ourselves and pay a lot less,” says Amitai. “But there’s a lot of pressure on you. We knew in advance we shouldn’t fall for the trick. But when you get there, the representative corners you.”
‘Turn up looking good!’
Sagi is the father of a boy who visited a Greek island resort this summer. He says he told one company rep who’d been offering the kids entry to parties and alcohol, “Are you listening to yourself? You’re talking with 16 and 17 year old kids.”
“There’s a whole mechanism here from organized tourism companies to encourage alcohol consumption,” complains Sagi, adding, “Kids are subjected to extortion and pressure, and it encourages bad behavior.”
The companies tout their representatives as the answer for any problems the kids might have, without having to call home. On its website, Issta says its reps “will make you fall in love with them and never forget them or your vacation! Our in-house photographer will take your picture and ensure you have souvenir pictures for life — turn up looking good!”
The companies even woo the teens at events like high-school graduation parties. Israir, for instance, markets its Israir Young tours in a collaboration with RBG — a company that produces the Israeli version of prom dances, and knows its audience well. Flying Carpet, meanwhile, collaborates with Neto-Fun.
The tour companies say they sell tickets to the attractions chosen in advance, and that additional tickets can be bought from representatives at the hotel. The representatives, meanwhile, also get to cut a coupon from attractions they sell — yacht rides, bars, etc.
The teens say they come under terrific pressure from the representatives to buy their add-ons to the tour package, which can double their vacation costs. And that’s before factoring in expenses like food.
Flying Carpet said the party packages these representatives sell aren’t connected to it, but to local suppliers. “We don’t get involved,” the company states, pointing out that its representatives are there 24/7 for the kids, who often get into trouble — they’re like mommy and daddy out there, they claim.
A party package will typically include entry to 10 to 12 parties, at least one of which is on a boat. If the kids haggle, the rep may toss in a bottle of booze.
Yoni, 17, recently back from Zakynthos, says the Israir Young rep made him feel that there weren’t many choices.
“When the representative said that without the party package there was nothing to do there, we were upset. He promised that at most of the parties in the package he was selling, food and drink would be provided and we wouldn’t need anything else. So even though the price took us aback — we only came with 400 euros for the week — he reassured us.”
Peer pressure also played a part: everybody else bought, so they did too, admits Yoni. He adds that many a party is organized by the company itself and you can’t get in except through the rep. Ultimately, he paid 370 euros for 10 parties (which included the first drink). The food and transport they were promised to at least “some” of the bashes never materialized. The parties were okay but not worth the money, Yoni says – and most people left pretty quickly when they realized the parties had been organized by the representatives and included mainly Israelis they already knew. So they went to other, local places.
The representatives were really nice, Yoni notes, but he felt they didn’t have the power to deliver what they’d promised.
When asked about clubs not on their lists, the representatives tend to suggest that they’re seedy, violent places plied by Nazis where Israelis are not welcome, says Tomer, 19, who has visited Burgas, Bulgaria, twice, at 17 and 18. By his second visit, he’d gained enough confidence to venture out to a club he’d been warned to avoid. “It turned out to be the cheapest and most fun,” he says.
Also, at some parties you can buy entry on the spot for half the price the representatives demand, adds Tomer. “But the representative is super-nice, young, handsome, cool. He comes to the hotel, explains, spends the evening with you in the room, drinks with you, orders a bottle — and en route closes the deal where you’ll go for the night. You know he’s making money out of you, but when he spends the entire evening with you, drinking and laughing, you go with the flow.”
Girls are especially vulnerable to the sense of protection offered by the representatives, say both Tomer and Shira, 19.
And when their money runs out? Dad Sagi counsels laying down ground rules in advance: no all-terrain vehicles; no strip clubs; and definitely no party packages. Yet just 90 minutes after his kid landed on a Greek island, he called home from his hotel to ask for more money and admitted that the representative had, after all, managed to sell him a party package. Realizing that junior would be left without food, Sagi admits wiring him 200 more euros.
Most of the companies TheMarker contacted declined to discuss party packages sold by people who represent them, or the representatives’ involvement in selling alcohol to minors or in organizing parties.
Israir said that Israir Young is a joint brand with RBG, and that Israir markets packages that include the flight, hotel and transport to destinations such as Zakynthos and Crete. The representatives are not Israir employees and may have other occupations, the company stated — their job is to help travelers when they reach the hotel, to get to their rooms, and to be an address for any trouble.
“The parties are produced by local suppliers and they define the content and character of the parties. Anybody can choose whatever package they want, according to the character of the parties and the dates. Any payment or charge for this or that package is not through Israir,” the company added.
RBG didn’t comment, though one of its managers told TheMarker, “Israir Young is Israir. Talk to them. My people work here in Israel. Those aren’t our people.”
Issta noted that the company representatives are experienced adults often dealing with teens who are abroad alone for the first time, and who need help on things that more experienced travelers would find trivial. Issta pays them salaries, but these representatives may sell extras on the spot depending upon what the teens need. Anyway, as far as Issta is concerned, the representatives are there to help the teens on their vacation and do a great job with that.
Flying Carpet, meanwhile, pointed out that the season for teenage tourism is over for this year, having peaked in June and July.