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(photo credit: Matt Zalen)
'Turkey is back," declares Arnon Englender, the managing director of Holiday Lines, which handles some 40 per cent of Israel's travel market to Turkey.
The triumphant smile on his face matches the tone of satisfaction in his voice.
Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan's sharp criticism of Israel's military offensive against Hamas in Operation Cast Lead coupled with his call to bar Israel from the United Nations elicited a strong and instant response from Israeli trade unions, who for years have been buying group vacation packages to Turkey for their members.
Angry at Erdogan's comments, and feeling unwanted in Turkey, one trade union group after another cancelled reservations, causing a great deal of anxiety in Turkey's tourist industry.
While those travel companies in Israel's tourist industry that do big business with Turkey could understand the reasons that prompted the cancellations, they too were concerned that this would have a devastating impact on their operations. As it is, travel abroad during a recession is a luxury expense.
The boycott was short-lived, however, because Israelis simply cannot resist a bargain - and Turkey, which according to Englender provides the best value for money all year round, pulled out all the stops to make itself even more attractive to Israelis by offering all-inclusive weekend trips - i.e. flight, three hotel nights, food and beverages, and entertainment - for only $200.
It was a deal too good to resist, and many Israelis took advantage of it.
"It's cheaper than going to Eilat," says Englender.
The special offer was in place only during the month of February, but it did the trick, and vindicated the optimism of Turkish Ambassador to Israel Namik Tan, who two weeks earlier in the course of an informal conversation with The Jerusalem Post had forecast that the crisis would soon blow over.
Tan had made a point of speaking to several of Israel's top travel agents and tour operators, telling them that leisure activities were one thing and politics another.
In the course of our interview, Englender keeps checking his computer screen to see to what extent reservations to Antalya are coming in.
"When you talk about Turkey in Israel, you mean Antalya," he says. "Antalya is a great deal at a fair price. It's unbeatable. It's cheaper than Eilat, Greece or Bulgaria, and for a family it means a savings of thousands of shekels."
Israelis hardly go to Istanbul, which is a big city and a connection destination, he adds, but are primarily interested in resorts, with Antalya the most desired destination followed by Marmaris and Bodram, all of which have nearby airports.
On the day of the interview, the company has two flights going to Antalya on planes that carry 170 passengers each.
Englender happily reports that both planes are almost full.
"So far, we're carrying more than 300 passengers today," he says.
Currently, his company has four flights a week to Turkey, which will double to eight flights at the beginning of April.
There were ten flights from the whole market last week, and during the Pessah week, says Englender, there will be 28 flights.
Of course, prices will change with demand. The current rate for an all-inclusive weekend of three nights including the flight is around $340 per person, and during the Pessah week, it will be somewhat more expensive, depending on whether people travel before or after Seder night.
Examples of prices that include a Seder night stay are $375 per person for four nights in a junior suite in the Queen Elizabeth Hotel and $349 per person in the Kemer Resort Hotel for the same period of time.
These are family prices which apply to two parents and two children in a suite. It should be borne in mind that there are no kosher facilities.
Prices go up after Seder night by approximately $100 per person, because a lot of people looking for a Pessah holiday still want to spend Seder with relatives and friends before they take off, and demand shoots up the following day.
Pessah is always a busy time in Antalya because schools and many business enterprises in Israel are closed during the holiday, so it's a great opportunity for a family getaway.
Because it's a resort area, parents often spend most of the time by the pool or at the beach while there are many organized activities for children, so that the parents don't have to worry about them.
In the evening, the numerous night clubs and bars are well populated by Israelis, and by day, when they get bored with sunning themselves by the pool or at the beach, there are many places in which to indulge in the Israeli national pastime of "shop till you drop."
Almost every family comes home with at least one item of the famed Turkish leatherware purchased at bargain prices in factory showrooms for a fraction of what they would cost in Israel.
For those who are interested in tourist attractions, there are relics of ancient civilizations, archaeological sites, jeep tours, magnificent waterfalls, a huge variety of water sports and a national space observatory.
Holiday Lines, which is one of Israel's largest wholesale companies, operates regular flights all year round to more than 30 destinations across Europe and the Mediterranean Basin.
A subsidiary of El Al (which has a 20 per cent stake in the company), Holiday Lines has close ties with all major airline companies in Europe as well as with other wholesalers around the world.
A huge wholesale company in Asia, for instance, can purchase thousands of hotel rooms from a particular hotel chain at the lowest possible rates, which it then makes available to firms such as Holiday Lines.
These rates will not appear in special deals offered on the Internet, but Holiday Lines can offer them to their clients who wish to make hotel reservations at the same time as they purchase their flight tickets if they are not traveling on all-inclusive charter flights.
Individual travelers do not have to book their Holiday Lines charter flights through an agent.
"Wholesale in the travel industry is not what it used to be," explains Englender. "No wholesaler is purely wholesale any more. Today we also deal directly with the traveler."
One of the benefits of traveling with Holiday Lines is that unlike companies with scheduled flights, there are no time limitations attached to the price of the ticket.
"On a scheduled flight, if you want to go to a certain destination in the morning and return the same night, it's going to cost you more," says Engelender. "We don't believe in that. We just believe in filling the plane. We don't believe in putting limitations on our passengers."
Because the company owns its planes and does not have to go through middlemen to sell seats on flights, it can afford to charge less than airlines that run scheduled flights to destinations not only in Turkey but in Europe.
Holiday Lines recently introduced seven-day organized tours on charter flights to Germany with Israeli guides who speak several languages. The tours include accommodation in high-quality tourist hotels.
The company also operates what it calls "mini-trip package tours" to European capitals of four nights and five days duration.
Prices vary depending on the destination and the type of accommodation, but start at 499 euros per person, Englender, who is a frequent flyer, admits that once in a while he would like to skip the international airport and vacation in Israel with his wife and two children, driving around some of the country's beauty spots, but unless people are prepared to rough it, an all-inclusive vacation in Israel costs a lot more than those that he sells for overseas destinations.
Labor costs are much cheaper in Turkey than in Israel, he says. In addition, Turkey's travel industry operates on such a vast scale that better-class hotels can afford to charge less because of the high occupancy rates.
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