The travel adviser: My crystal ball predictions for 2018

I’ve mined the data and perused projections to bring you my outlook for the coming year.

December 24, 2017 02:36

Upcoming Ramon Airport, Eilat (YouTube/Tourist Israel)

Upcoming Ramon Airport, Eilat (YouTube/Tourist Israel)

Good businesses keep up with the hottest trends, great ones anticipate them.

To help you detect what’s coming in 2018 in the world of travel, I’ve mined the data and perused projections to bring you my outlook for the coming year. My best bets? The number of Chinese tourists will show phenomenal growth all over the world; El Al will get a new CEO; more airlines will continue to fly to and from Israel; boutique hotels will continue to pop up like mushrooms after the first rain and their room rates will continue to defy logic; and more tourists will learn to live like a local, not with one.

Here are my predictions for the world of travel for the year ahead:

1. Israel will see four million tourists.
Tourism Minister Yariv Levin has been running the ministry for over two-and-half years. While he’s eager to take credit for the record number of tourists visiting Israel, the fact is the dogged determination of the Transportation Ministry’s open-skies policy of a few years ago laid the groundwork. In fact, the eight years in which Transportation Minister Israel Katz has held his post is the primary reason that airlines which barely existed in our skies are now finding merit in flying to Israel.

Low-cost airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet, alongside China Airlines, Hainan Airlines and Cathay Pacific, will be increasing both the frequency of their flights in 2018, and the cities from which they offer them. With a subsidy from the Tourism Ministry, some of the new cities from which Ryanair is flying will cause many travelers to look at them. How many of you have expressed a desire to fly directly from Tel Aviv to Baden- Baden, Gdansk, Poznan or Wroclaw? Now you can. Springtime in France will be more attractive as easyJet begins flights to Lyon, Bordeaux & Nice.

Wizz Air will be offering cheap flights to Israel from Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland and Romania. Minister Levin has decided to re-brand Israel next year as a vacation destination rather than a solemn place of pilgrimage. At the Annual Conference of Israel Travel Agents, he quipped: “We have changed the market concept from the outmoded idea of Israel being a destination for Jews and pilgrims. These segments are very narrow and vulnerable to security problems, and we therefore reached the limit of the potential very quickly. Advertising was focused on holy and solemn places. We decided to change the approach and to sell Israel as a vacation destination. We discovered that demand existed, but there is no one to sell Israel as a product. The reason is that we previously worked with travel agents who worked with a limited specific community. There was no one who could sell a vacation package to Israel.”

China will see a change in paradigm in its flights to and from Israel next year. While El Al flies to both Hong Kong and Beijing, Hainan Airlines will add Guangzhou as its third Chinese city offering flights to Tel Aviv, in addition to Beijing and Shanghai. Cathay Pacific has become a dragon on its flights from Hong Kong, filling them with numbers for which they were unprepared.

There are already more billionaires in China than there are in the US. And like the Chinese economy, these fortunes have trickled down to the middle class. By focusing on the lucrative Chinese market, I predict at least 150,000 Chinese tourists next year, triple what we had in 2017. It was Chinese business executives, fascinated by Israel’s innovation and entrepreneurship, who arrived first. Captivated by Israel’s remarkable story and growth, their investments in Israeli companies were the prelude to the leisure tourists now visiting the Holy Land. Israel’s Tourism Ministry responded by certifying over 70 Chinese-speaking tourist guides to traverse the countryside. Less surprising is that Chinese tourists are spending less on shopping and more on dining and sightseeing as overseas travel becomes more mainstream.

The cliché of Chinese travelers as only being shoppers is reductive. Like most other tourists, they desire more experiential travel. One problem the ministry has not addressed is that Israel still demands visas for visitors from China and India, with burdensome requirements. This has to be addressed to assist the upward trend.

2. Eilat will see unparalleled growth in the number of flights.
Ramon Airport is now in the final stages of construction, about 10 km. north of Israel’s southernmost city and will open in the second quarter of 2018, replacing Eilat Airport, which is located in the city center. This will also put an end to commercial flights for Ovda Airport, where most of the low-cost carriers have been flying.

Eilat’s newest airport has been designed to handle two million travelers a year, primarily for tourists who crave sea and sun.

As an incentive, the transportation minister has canceled the tax for airlines flying into Ramon Airport for the next three years. Poland alone, with a population of over 38 million, will have flights coming from eight different cities next year: Gdansk, Katowice, Krakow, Lublin, Poznan, Rzeszow, Warsaw and Wroclaw. I am in awe that so many Poles want to fly to Israel. It reminds me of a quip I heard at the Polish Embassy in Tel Aviv that I believe Ambassador Jacek Chodowicz said: “Did you hear about the Polish godfather? He makes you an offer you can’t understand.”

In fact, 2018 will see more than 60 weekly flights to Eilat, up from barely four a few years ago. Many tourists take advantage of their time in Eilat to swim with the Dolphins at Dolphin Reef and explore the Coral World Underwater Observatory. Diving in the Red Sea and hiking in the Arava are some of the more active options. Eilat is also the perfect starting point for a tour to Petra in Jordan. As Israel’s only city that is a tax-free zone, it’s a popular place to go shopping.

3. El Al will replace its CEO
El Al CEO David Maimon is on his way out. One could view his announcement last month of his resignation as leaving at the top of the cycle, before the next tidal wave hits the airline. Professionally, I give him much credit for navigating the choppy skies and bringing labor peace to his workers. Successfully integrating the Boeing 787’s Dreamliner into the fleet – initially to Newark and in another two months to Hong Kong – levels the playing field with competitors. His success through the tough times, from security events to the pilot crises, should be applauded, but his inability to deal with his own bloated staff and his forays into selling insurance and getting into car rentals cannot be ignored.

El Al, while voicing support for the increased competition from the foreign airlines, continues to chip away at the tourism minister. At the Conference of the Israeli Travel agents, his last formal event, Maimon was quoted as saying: “Although the skies have been opened, almost no tourists have been added to the country. The market was opened, and we may reach 3.5 million tourists. The Ministry of Tourism is doing exceptional work, but the main problem we face is a shortage of popularly priced hotels. The Ministry of Tourism is supporting, marketing and subsidizing new routes. If I take the Ministry of Tourism’s marketing budget and see how many come to El Al? It is 0.5% and we carry 35% of the tourists visiting the country. Balancing and correction is needed.”

Critics claimed Maimon stepped down amid poor labor relations, rising fuel prices and the merger with Israir Airlines. The fact that El Al’s shares plummeted 52% during the last year may also have played a role. My prediction is that El Al’s board will take the safe route and promote someone from within or someone who spent decades at the company. The risk of bringing in an outsider, as Teva did with its latest CEO, is currently not being considered.

4. Airport strikes
I guarantee you that 2018 will see an increase in airport strikes. Unions throughout the world find the easiest way to pressure a noncompliant government into increasing salaries or benefits is to call a strike.

While you rarely find these phenomena in the US or the Far East, Israel and Europe have been afflicted by this tool of airport workers and will see it more often in the future. Lufthansa is in negotiations to purchase the state-run behemoth Alitalia from the Italian government. If successful in their purchase, don’t you think that one of the main German demands will be a drastic reduction of employees at all Italian airports? Israel’s airport workers threaten and carry out strikes quite often, with back-to-work orders slow in being requested from the court.

5. Airbnb & boutique hotels
Although some locations are clamping down on services like Airbnb, this service has definitely emerged as a great way to save money on vacation. Accommodations are cheaper and you can often cook for yourself. With an Airbnb rental, you have the opportunity to stay in a neighborhood, get insider knowledge about your destination as seen through the eyes of locals, getting a small glimpse of how they live, where they dine, and get off the beaten path.

Don’t get me wrong – there are hidden gems scattered across Israel that offer a more intimate stay. With some boutique hotels in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Eilat and the Dead Sea offering as few as four rooms, you’re bound to get a much more personal experience. It goes without saying that along with intimacy, the quality of service and overall experience here are much higher than many other destinations. So check into the boutique lifestyle, because once you do, you’ll never want to stay anywhere else again.

I would be remiss in not closing with the quote of Casey Stengel: “Never make predictions, especially about the future.”

Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at mark.feldman@

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