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That’s how Hannah Blustin, the founder of a new Israeli luxury travel outfit, describes her typical client. “Even though Israel is a small country, it’s hard to take in everything in a short amount of time unless you have lots of money to spend,” she explains.
That could justify the hefty price tag on a standard 7-to-10-day trip for two through her Tel Aviv-based Pomegranate Travel company: anywhere from $10,000 to $60,000.
Those are what she calls standard trips. Others could better be described as over-the-top. This summer, for example, Blustin organized a deluxe 12-day trip for a party of eight that cost $360,000. To date, it is her largest single booking.
“Sometimes I’m even amazed at how much people will spend on travel,” she admits.
True, a good part of the six-digit figure went to covering the costs of renting a helicopter so that the group could be shuttled around by air and, in that way, cover more ground in less time. How else, for example, could they manage to start their day with a tour of wineries in the Golan Height (guided by a professional sommelier) up north, and be in time for the lavish picnic spread waiting for them atop Masada, in the south, at lunchtime?
The price tag on that particular deluxe package also included stays at Israel’s newest line of luxury hotels, where a single night in a family suite can cost between $4,000 and $5,000. Throw in some elaborate meals at Tel Aviv’s buzz-worthy celebrity chef restaurants, and it starts adding up.
Luxury travel has been a long time coming to Israel. Until about five years ago, it might even have been considered a contradiction in terms. Known for bad service and its casual approach to foreign tourists, Israel was hardly a natural destination for the rich jet-set crowd. Yet, today, a small but growing number of boutique Israeli firms, like Pomegranate, are choosing to specialize in this particular niche. In parallel, major international luxury travel companies are either adding Israel to their list of destinations or enhancing their existing packages.
“Not that long ago, the options for a high-end place to stay in Israel were the same uninteresting multinational hotel brands you see worldwide, like the Hiltons and Sheratons along the seashore,” notes Hayley Levy, co-founder of EasyBEE, an Israeli company that specializes in training hospitality industry workers. “Now, the options for exceptional independent places to stay are plenty, stretching from Jerusalem to Acre and everywhere in between.”
Topping the list is no doubt The Norman, a 50-room boutique hotel located in central Tel Aviv that opened in 2014. A destination in and of itself for a certain breed of discerning international traveler, The Norman was named the best boutique hotel in the world by Jetsetter Magazine barely a year after its grand opening.
But any list of top boutique accommodations should also include the recently opened Ritz-Carlton in Herzliya, the Waldorf Astoria Jerusalem, the Scots in Tiberias, the Efendi in Acre, the Beresheet desert hotel and spa in Mitzpeh Ramon, and the Cramim resort and spa outside Jerusalem. Scheduled to join these illustrious ranks within the next few months are the brand new Orient in Jerusalem’s German Colony and the Kempinski in Jaffa.
“Until eight years ago, the Tel Aviv Hilton was considered the most luxurious hotel in Israel,” notes Miriam Braun, manager of the Tel Aviv office of RASK Travel, a London-based luxury travel firm. “That is hardly the case today. You have quite a few hotels now that offer 24-hour room service, fabulous restaurants on their premises and all the other amenities that luxury travelers demand.”
Influx of execs
The fact that finicky vacationers no longer have to compromise on accommodations is but one explanation for Israel’s recent emergence as a luxury travel destination. Another is the country’s so-called Startup Nation status, which in recent years has lured a new category of visitors to its shores – business executives who expect and demand a higher level of service, and have no problem paying for it.
“You have so many foreign companies with an R&D presence in Israel now and tech investors traveling here from all over the world, that it’s created a need for much better service,” says Linda Mady, Levy’s co-founding partner at EasyBEE.
Yet another, though perhaps less significant factor behind Israel’s newfound status as a luxury vacation destination is its booming foodie scene.
“Let’s face it, most luxury travelers are foodies, and the Israeli foodie scene has definitely taken off in the past six-seven years, so it’s also become a big draw,” says Braun of RASK Travel.
Before wealthy travelers appeared on the scene, the Israeli tourism industry relied almost exclusively on two categories of foreign visitors: Christian pilgrims (generally traveling on organized, low-budget tours) and Jews, many of them with family and friends in Israel. For both groups, the country’s historical and religious sites were the primary attraction.
By contrast, say industry specialists, this new brand of travelers is more interested in the present than the past, and in sensual rather than spiritual experiences. For that reason, they find the contemporary Israeli art, culture, food and high-tech scene far more alluring than the ancient rocks of the Western Wall. And for that reason, they would much rather spend an afternoon visiting a funky new startup than touring a Holocaust museum.
Elsewhere around the world, luxury travel tends to be associated with lots of sea, sun and pampering. Less so in Israel, notes Braun of RASK Travel, even though the country has much to offer on those fronts as well. “When people talk about luxury tours of Israel,” she says, “what they really mean is something tailor-made to their specific interests.” In other words, active vacations, but not of the cookie-cutter variety.
Braun’s most offbeat request? “Recently, we had a family from New York here on a trip to celebrate their son’s bar mitzvah,” she says. “They wanted the whole trip to be Israel Defense Forces-themed. It required lots of special permits, because they wanted to visit air force and navy bases and to take lessons in sharpshooting. Fortunately, we managed to pull it off.”
Often, as that example would suggest, putting together the right luxury vacation package requires not only clients with deep pockets, but also, access to the right individuals.
“My clients come here to experience something they wouldn’t be able to without the right connections,” says Tova Wald, widely regarded as the trailblazer of the Israeli luxury travel industry.
“That could mean having a one-on-one meeting with a well-known kabbalist, touring an excavation with the archaeologist in charge, dining with leading Israeli industrialists, meeting up-and-coming Israeli artistic talents, or hanging out with friends of our kids who’ve built their own startups. The people who sign up with us are really trying to gain a better understanding of the Israeli DNA, and they know that what we bring to the package is the connections to do that.”
Whereas any visitor to Israel can sign up for a foodie tour of Jerusalem’s Mahane Yehuda marketplace, Blustin’s clients at Pomegranate are accompanied on their outings by a celebrity chef. Her connections can also buy them, among other perks, a private performance of the world-renowned Batsheva Dance Company, a deluxe tour of the new wing of the Tel Aviv Museum of Art with a prominent art historian, or a windsurfing lesson for their kids with Gal Fridman, the Israeli gold medal Olympian.
Camping in the desert in luxury conditions is another popular item in many of the boutique travel packages. For example, for roughly $1,000 a night per couple (assuming there’s a minimum number of participants), Pomegranate organizes special pop-up desert camps overlooking the Mitzpeh Ramon crater in the Negev. Besides stargazing equipment, a sumptuous three-course meal prepared by a professional chef, showers, toilets and super-comfy mattresses, Blustin makes sure to pamper her clients with special touches on these excursions, like little chocolates on their tent pillows.
Luxury travel is such a new niche that neither the Israeli Tourism Ministry nor the Israeli Incoming Tour Operators Association keeps tabs on it. That makes it difficult to assess the volume of visitors, though it is widely assumed to be still quite small. Wald, the most veteran operator in the field, for example, plans trips for about 30 to 40 small groups a year.
Blustin, a former Londoner, opened her company three years ago – not exactly an opportune time, considering it was in between Israel’s two recent wars in the Gaza Strip. Things could have been worse, though, she says: “We haven’t had any cancellations, although I imagine the level of inquiries would have been higher were it not for the security situation.”
A graduate of Oxford, Blustin worked as a derivatives trader at Merrill Lynch before embarking on this new chapter of her life after moving to Israel.
“I’ve always had two big passions – travel and Israel – and here was a way of combining the two,” she says. “I did a Google search, and nothing came up for luxury travel in Israel, so I decided to give it a go.”
One of the biggest challenges facing businesses like hers is that despite recent improvements, service in the local hospitality industry is still not up to par with luxury destinations elsewhere in the world.
“We’ve invested a huge amount of time in finding Israel’s more polished gems when it comes to service providers, and we go out of our way to find and work with suppliers who are utterly charming,” says Blustin. “Where this is not possible, we shield people from bad service by acting as an interface with suppliers who might be excellent at what they do, but do not have the right language to speak directly to a client.”
Like most luxury travel companies, Braun of RASK Travel combines trips to Israel with side excursions to Jordan. One of the added benefits of these combo vacation packages, Braun notes, is that they allow her to spare her clients exposure to some of the less attractive features of Israeli hospitality. “When we have trips to the Dead Sea or the Red Sea, we just book hotels on the other side in Jordan, where the service is much better,” says Braun.
Blustin prefers giving her luxury clients a heads-up about the need to manage expectations. Before they arrive in Israel, they receive a note that includes the following warning: “Don’t be offended if your waiter isn’t as attentive as you would expect him to be in New York, or if your waitress is having an off day and does nothing to hide it. Consider ‘bad service’ an opportunity to examine Israel’s non-hierarchical nature in the extreme.”