China's Hainan Airlines..
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Come September, Israel is set to roll out the red carpet for Hainan Airlines, China’s fourth-largest air carrier.
The airline, the largest privately owned one in China, is seeking to operate three direct weekly flights from Beijing to Ben-Gurion Airport this year, expanding Israel’s link to the world’s largest outgoing tourism market. In 2014, 116 million Chinese tourists traveled the world, but only about 34,000 came to Israel.
The route will operate on days that El Al flights to Beijing do not: Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays.
“I welcome this important step which can be leveraged with economic growth and increased tourism,” said Tourism Minister Uzi Landau.
Increasing tourism from Asia, and from China in particular, was an early goal he set in his tenure, said Landau, who recently announced he will not be running in the March election.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-president Shimon Peres raised the issues with their Chinese counterparts in face-to-face meetings, Landau said, helping prompt the airline to open the route.
Even though the number of Chinese tourists visiting Israel has been small, it has been steadily growing, increasing 76 percent between 2012 and 2014. That’s just the tip of the iceberg, however. China became the largest source of global tourism in 2012, and the number is predicted to rise to 200 million annual overseas tourists by 2020. In 2014 alone, Chinese tourists spent $120 billion on their vacations.
For Israel, the opportunity to expand sources of global tourism will be welcome after a tough year in 2014. Though tourism was set to break records in the first half of the year, rising by 7% over the same period the previous year, the summer war with Gaza put a serious dent in visits. All in all, tourism dropped by 1% in 2014.
The ruble crisis in Russia has also hit the tourism industry, which included large numbers of Russian visitors. On the bright side, the cheap price of oil that helped precipitate the Russia crisis could ultimately be a boon for tourism; it is helping bring down the cost of flying.
In laying the groundwork for the Hainan Airlines flights, the Tourism Ministry has worked to make Israel friendlier to Chinese tourists, opening a course for tour guides in Chinese and reducing visa wait times by two-thirds.