Travel Agents Federation of India conference.
(photo credit: NIR SMOL)
India and Israel came together this week to talk tourism, with 600 travel agents from the Asian subcontinent arriving in Jerusalem for their annual conference.
The destination of each year’s Travel Agents Federation of India conference is influential; some 71 percent of India’s outgoing tourists base their travel decisions on the recommendations of travel agents.
“We see great potential in this conference to position Israel as an attractive tourism destination for the Indian tourist – similar to the way in which Israelis see India as an important tourism destination,” Tourism Minister Uzi Landau said.
The trip has helped ease worries about the conflict, according to participants.
“It is a very important factor in the mind of the travelers from India. Even the travel agents had a different concept of Israel, whether it’s safe to travel or not,” TAFI president Zakkir Ahmed said.
“The only way to clear their mind was to come here and actually see it. Now when we go back, I think they will have a different outlook of Israel. I don’t think they’ll look at it as a place of conflict,” he added.
Israel opened a Government Tourism Office in Mumbai two years ago, and hopes to nearly triple the number of Indian tourists to Israel, from 34,900 in 2014 to 100,000 by 2017.
Indian outgoing tourism grew 13 percent from 2012 to 2013, according to the World Travel Organization, and numbers are expected to reach 50 million by 2050, up from 12.5 million in 2010.
But violent outbursts do affect tourism, which saw almost 40,000 Indians visit Israel before Operation Protective Edge moderated it last year.
Aside from the conflict, say tourism officials, there are other issues Israel needs to address to make Indian tourists feel as welcome as Israeli backpackers do on the beaches of Goa.
“There should be more air connectivity,” said Ahmed; El Al only operates three flights a week to Mumbai, and none to New Delhi. He also suggested that the visa process could be simplified, restrictions lifted, and applications put online.
Hassan Madah, who heads Israel’s tourism office in Mumbai, said Israel was working on these issues and was trying to lower the threshold for group visas from 10 to five.
One issue is cultural, added Madah. Jain vegetarians, for example, do not eat root vegetables or onions, so they would have difficulty in Israel even in places that serve vegetarian or vegan options.