107 Million Chinese Globetrotters, but a Mere 18,700 Make It to Israel

With just one route servicing China, strict visa rules and virtual no marketing, Israel isn’t getting its fair share of surging Chinese tourism

Rami Shllush

The Chinese have a long-standing love affair with the Dead Sea. They learn about the lowest spot on Earth in school, for example, and when the Dead Sea was mooted as a candidate in a 2011 contest for one of the new seven wonders of the world – China chalked up the largest number of votes in favor of Israel’s saltiest sea. The Chinese have even undertaken to create an artificial Dead Sea in Sichuan province, to simulate the real one.

One would have hoped that this would have been enough to make Israel a prime destination for Chinese tourists, but it hasn’t.

“To say that not much has been done to bring Chinese tourists to Israel is not true. It would be more correct to say that almost nothing has been done” – that comment comes from Israel’s new tourism minister, Yariv Levin, who has been in office since May.

The data show that there is some truth to what he says. Over the past three years, there has in fact been a major increase in Chinese tourism in the Holy Land, but the numbers are still small. Last year, about 32,000 Chinese came here, up 29% from 2013. The upward trend is continuing this year. During the first five months of 2015, Israel has welcomed 18,700 Chinese tourists, a 35% increase over the same period in 2014.

When you look at the bigger picture, however, you see that this is a drop in the ocean. The Chinese represent one of the largest populations of foreign travelers around the world. Last year, 107 million of them went abroad, a 19.5% increase over 2013. Although most head to destinations in the Far East, about 20 million venture further afield.

Lack of flights

The first obstacle to growth in Chinese tourism in Israel is a lack of direct flights here. China has a number of international airports but the only direct route between that country and Israel is El Al Airlines’ route to Beijing. Under such circumstances, the supply of seats is limited and prices are not competitive. About six months ago, it was announced that China’s fourth-largest carrier, Hainan Airlines, was expected to begin three flights a week in September, on the days on which El Al doesn’t fly the route. The inauguration of that service has now been deferred to November, for reasons that Tourism Ministry sources decline to disclose.

For his part, Tourism Minister Levin says that the delay is the result of bureaucratic difficulties related to the terms the Chinese carrier received.

“Around the world it is acceptable to provide benefits such as an exemption from certain fees to a carrier that is beginning service along a certain route, but in Israel, we are not prepared for this,” Levins explains. “We are due to meet with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz to expedite the matter, and are also working with the Israeli ambassador in China, Matan Vilnai, to resolve the issue.”

If this is indeed the reason for the delay, however, negotiations are likely to reach a dead end, as government sources have told TheMarker that Israel simply does not provide such benefits. Airlines that fly here do so based on commercial considerations and they configure their operations here accordingly, the sources said.

Since the number of Chinese traveling abroad is rising quickly, many countries are courting them. These are typically tourists who stay for a relatively long period of time since they are traveling major distances. Moreover, the amount of money a Chinese tourist spends is also relatively high, so the potential posed by these visitors is great.

Ambassador Vilnai says the goal for the coming years is to bring 100,000 Chinese tourists a year to Israel, but that appears to be a distant dream unless significant changes are made.

Beyond the number of flights from China, Israel’s visa requirements for Chinese nationals are also a major issue. Minister Levin acknowledged that rather than applying for a visa to Israel, the tendency of many tourists is simply to go elsewhere; in any case, he says, demanding visas from organized tour groups is totally unnecessary. Calls to eliminate the visa for Chinese visitors have become a “legacy,” handed down from one tourism minister to the next, but so far there has been no breakthrough.

A meeting has been scheduled this month to discuss the subject, and is to include Interior Minster Silvan Shalom and representatives of the foreign and justice ministries, but expectations are not high.

Food and other factors

Once Chinese tourists do arrive here, they have certain special preferences, says Ilan Maor, vice president of the Israel-China Chamber of Commerce. They would happily enjoy one authentic Israeli meal, he notes, but would prefer to eat at Chinese restaurants. And they discover that authentic Chinese cuisine is hard to come by here.

“They want everything to be in Chinese,” Maor says. “As Israelis, when we visit Paris, we have no expectations that anything will be in Hebrew, but the Chinese person thinks: ‘I represent a global tourism power, so I have it coming to me.’

“The British have already announced that in some of the places frequented by [Chinese] tourists, they will install signs in Chinese. In addition, most of the major hotels around the world have someone who speaks Chinese, and their websites and brochures are also written in Chinese. Of course, tourists who come here need a tour guide who speaks their language.”

Some hotels that have experience with Chinese guests have understood that they need to make changes to accommodate these visitors, particularly when it comes to breakfast. Even though the typical Israeli hotel breakfast provides a plethora of varied offerings, the Chinese have their own preferences.

“We have even sent cooks to specialize in preparing Asian breakfasts, which include rice, dumplings, congee porridge and other foods,” explains Shai Asia, executive vice president of Crowne Plaza Israel hotels.

“We also put the tea bags they like in their rooms,” he adds, along with noodles they can prepare by themselves in their rooms by adding hot water.

Crowne Plaza hotels are currently implementing a scheme aimed at providing services geared to the Chinese visitor that includes not only a special breakfast but Chinese-speaking staff and the option for the guests to pay with China’s UnionPay credit card.

Shai Doitsh, the marketing and sales manager for Arcadia hotels, says his chain is also trying to accommodate the culinary preferences of its Chinese visitors.

“Before they arrive, we contact the group and check their particular meal preferences,” he says, adding that at dinner, the hotels include rice and Asian dishes. At Prima hotels, they serve rice at breakfast along with rice cereal and various kinds of fish.

If Israel is hoping to welcome 100,000 Chinese tourists a year, it will need a network of Chinese-speaking guides, as these visitors would naturally expect. The problem is that Chinese is hardly a popular language in Israel and apparently, there are only about 35 tour guides who speak it. Accommodating 100,000 Chinese tourists would require about 100 such guides. To that end, about a year ago the Tourism Ministry opened a course in Chinese for tour guides, with about 30 participants. The course also teaches participants about Chinese culture and customs.

‘Israel isn’t on the map’

Marketing of Israel is another area that will require attention if 100,000 Chinese visitors are to be brought here. The Israel Government Tourist Office in China is expected to add an emissary from Israel to step up marketing efforts and the office is also due to open a Shanghai branch. The Israeli tourism bureau in China currently has a budget of just a few million shekels, which doesn’t permit massive promotion of Israel.

But if the budget is not boosted, the numbers of arrivals from China cannot be expected to reach the goal that Israel has set for itself. “Israel isn’t on the map for the Chinese tourist,” Maor says. “He doesn’t see us advertising. They may come here perhaps on business, but not for vacation. It doesn’t occur to them.”

One of the efforts currently coming together to market Israel in China includes collaboration with other countries that the Chinese tourist may consider visiting. The possibility of offering a package with travel agents from Italy is currently being looked into, making the trip to Israel more attractive. Italy is less than four hours from Israel by plane, which from the standpoint of the Chinese is a short hop.

Israeli travel agents add that Chinese tourists are less sensitive to the security situation in Israel. Unlike Europeans, they generally come on short notice, and usually in a group that reserves five to ten rooms at a hotel.

“We are trying to bring Chinese tourists to a tourist destination that suits them. The potential is already here. The Dead Sea, history, amazing archaeology, impressive geographic diversity, an English-speaking population, a high-tech background that excites them, so we have a wonderful foundation,” says Maor.

And here’s a little but important tip for hotels: If the Chinese staying at whatever hotel are satisfied, their friends and relatives will come. That’s how it works. Chinese tourists rely tremendously on recommendations from friends. That’s how they decide where to go, and it’s not just the advice of close friends.

“The Chinese go onto the websites of hotels and interesting destinations and thoroughly read reviews. They are crazy about searching the Web,” says Maor, who describes the avid writing and reading of such reviews. “They don’t necessarily go on Trip Advisor, because they have opinion sites of their own, but the idea is clear. A hotel that conducts itself particularly well for a tourist, will gain a huge advantage in this market,” he says. “On the other hand, if they mess up, everyone will know about it.”