Israel not a pilgrimage destination anymore; numbers reflecting the trend, says Hassan Madah

Hassan Madah, Director, Israel Ministry of Tourism – India & Philippines has reasons to reflect enthusiasm at the prospects from the Indian market. After all, Israel is finally being viewed as a leisure destination by the domestic outbound and not only as a holy land with a limited traction among the larger outbound. Niche segments are looking up too. He believes that with the tailwinds, Israel could soon achieve the, once elusive, hundred thousand tourist mark. Excerpts from a detailed one-on-one with Hassan Madah:

Hassan Madah
Director, Israel National Tourism office in India and Philippines – Israel Ministry of Tourism

Israel Ministry of Tourism’s outreach in the Indian market is in overdrive this year. In 2018, the tourism ministry conducted roadshows in 9 cities in India, for the first-time adding Goa and Kochi to the list of its destinations. The Israeli delegation made its presence felt, with a comparatively stronger contingent in presence, which was represented by six companies. Prominently DMCs, namely RT&T, Jerusalem T&T, YAEL GROUP, Magi Holidays and Diesenhaus Unitours Incoming Tourism were in presence, apart from the Israeli flag carrier El Al. It was a well-thought strategy as the ministry managed to cover most important bases, evenly registering itself in key source markets in the north, west, east and south of India.

Giving an overview of the response of the domestic travel trade to the concerted outreach, Hassan Madah told us that the undertaking was “very well received.” The effort was to promote Israel as a holistic destination and not just a holy land, he shared, adding that a “fantastic response from the agent community had validated their efforts.”

The big takeaway had been the shift in the perception of Israel as being a destination meant only for pilgrimage, he noted. “There has been a shift in thinking. Previously, a majority of travelers from south India were Christians travelling to visit the holy land. Muslims, too, are now undertaking the pilgrimage,” he substantiated.  He stressed that the Indian market was increasingly beginning to view Israel as a leisure and MICE destination which was a major transformation for the ministry.

When asked whether the hike in leisure numbers was restricted to Tel Aviv or travelled beyond, he called “Israel a dynamic destination, offering several experiences for leisure seekers.” “There has been a rising interest towards niche, experience-based travel and this is not limited to Tel Aviv.  Jerusalem, Eilat, Dead Sea and Negev Regions also attract many visitors with a plethora of activities that can be enjoyed there,” he detailed. Further enumerating the country’s tourism offerings, he said: “one can experience wine and cheese tours in Israel or opt for a mud spa treatment at the Dead Sea; explore the thriving nightlife of Tel Aviv or swim with dolphins in Eilat.” Israel had much to offer to adventure seekers, too, as it also offered “Tandem Sky Diving, Luxury Desert Camping in the Negev and skiing experiences at Mount Hermon in the winters.” 

Floating in the Dead Sea. (Photo Credit: Itamar Grinberg & Israeli Ministry of Tourism)

Hassan Madah suggested that inbound tourist arrivals from India had witnessed a radical growth in the past few years. For Israel, India was one of the best-performing markets in Asia and stood 11th globally as their source market, he told us. “Many initiatives have contributed to this growth in numbers and our recent reforms including the reduction in visa fee to INR 1,100 is being seen as a welcoming move,” he shared. Detailing some specifics, he informed that there had been “a growth of 58 per cent with 48,800 Indian arrivals to the country from January to September 2018, as compared to 30,800 Indian visitors during the same period in 2016.”

The increased demand had reflected in added flight frequency and seat capacity, he reasoned. There was a growing interest from Indian and Israeli carriers to expand operations between India and Israel, he said. “Air India, starting the 26th November, will fly five times a week from New Delhi while Israeli airline El Al has introduced Boeing 777-200ER aircraft with 279 seats on its Mumbai-Tel Aviv route. Spice Jet recently appointed a GSA in Israel while Arkia has expressed interest to start direct flight operations from South India,” he explained, sharing insight on the more imminent developments that were positively impacting the air-connectivity. 

To say that Israel has gained a massive prominence and visibility in India, in the past few years, is not adding to anyone’s knowledge. The spotlight had turned to the Middle Eastern country with the much-publicized visit to Israel by PM Modi and a consequent visit by PM Netanyahu to India, Hassan Madah believed.  “Israel has gained a massive visibility. We also initiated the first ever Bollywood collaboration with Dharma Productions to shoot a song for the movie ‘Drive’ in Israel. With Jacqueline Fernandez and Sushant Singh visiting the country, Israel garnered a great attention and interest among Indian travellers,” he substantiated. 

Making a note of the various initiatives to relax the visa procedure, along with fast-tracking of visa processing, he said that such undertakings had “made travel to Israel a seamless process.” “In the coming years, we are positive about our growth figures and aim to reach the 1 lakh mark by 2020,” he told us when asked to share a realistic expectation from the Indian market in the coming few years.

What has been interesting is that the growth in footfalls from the Indian shores had also reflected in MICE movement, across the board, Hassan Madah added. He said that an enhanced company-to-company dealing between the corporate entities of the two nations had played a role in the northward ascent of numbers. “Niche segments like weddings and honeymoons are catching on too,” he said.

He proudly shared that the country had hosted over 3.6 million tourists from the world over in 2018. And these numbers are only till the month of October. It was no mean achievement for a nation whose population stood at 8.4 million, he enthusiastically added. We could not agree more.

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