The British are coming

As almost 130,000 UK tourists arrive in Israel in 2005, tourism is up 70% and rising.

jerusalem tourist bus 88 (photo credit: )
jerusalem tourist bus 88
(photo credit: )
Almost 130,000 tourists arrived in Israel from the UK In the first 10 months of 2005, which, according to the Ministry of Tourism, represents a rise of seven percent over last year's levels. Yet, if Gary David, the director of Cadogan has his way, the numbers will be considerably higher in 2006 and 2007. Part of the International Bland Group that includes GB Airways, a British Airways franchise, members of the Association of British Travel Agents (ABTA) and Truly Independent Professional Travel Organization (TIPTO), Cadogan seeks out new destinations for British holiday makers. Cadogan has listed Israel as a preferred tourist destination, and not just because David is Jewish - though he does admit that his Jewishness did factor into his decision. David is currently in Israel with 118 of Britain's top travel agents. There would have been 120 but for the Netanya bombing on Monday. Two of the agents got cold feet and dropped out. Whereas the security situation in Israel was once a great deterrent to tourism, the fact that terrorism and natural disasters can strike anywhere in the world, including on home turf, has given travelers a different philosophy about going to places that might be potentially dangerous, says David. The group was at the airport in London when made aware of the Netanya suicide attack. "We thought we'd lose half the group," he admits. "There was a little apprehension, but only two people dropped out." Marketing Israel is no novelty to David. He started his career in tourism with Peltours 21 years ago. Then 18 years ago, he switched to Speedwing which is owned by David Lewis, who established the Isrotel chain, and was managing director of the company for three years. During that time he says, Speedwing was the biggest tour company to Israel. When he joined Cadogan, David put Israel as a destination on the back burner where it remained until two years ago when he began to think that the time might be ripe to start marketing Israel again. But there were niggling doubts - he wasn't sure about the quality of hotels, the standards of service, safety and security issues - plus he wasn't sure just how to turn around Israel's poor image in England. Two years ago, he began visiting Israel every month and became convinced that quality and service issues had been addressed. The support of the Israel Government Tourist Office (IGTO) in the UK was "fantastic" and the cooperation and service of El Al was "superb". Each year Cadogan rewards the top 100 agents in the UK with a bonus trip and an awards presentation ceremony abroad. In conversation with Uzi Gafni, IGTO director for the UK and Ireland, the idea came up to have the ceremony in Israel. In the past, British travel agents have focused primarily on Eilat. Yet, while Eilat is indeed a beautiful place, says David over lunch at the Inbal hotel in Jerusalem, "it isn't Israel. There are plenty of other sea and sun destinations in the Mediterranean." David is much more interested in introducing travel agents to Israeli history, culture, night life, places of interest and shopping. "People just don't understand the fabulous things that Israel has to offer," he says. While the group that he has brought with him does include some Jews, 95% of the agents are not Jewish and are responsible for 85% of Cadogan's business. "If you would have asked any of them two days ago what Israel has to offer," David comments, "they'd say terrorism." Yet, in less than 24 hours of traveling through the old city of Jerusalem, and the market, they've become so enamored they're asking to stay longer than the originally scheduled three or four days. They are evaluating everything - the vote for the lunch both in terms of service and the quality of the food is 10 out of 10, with a huge round of applause for Chef Itzik Mizrahi. David has absolutely no idea how much business this familiarization trip will generate, and was not willing to hazard a ballpark guess. "It's a three year plan," he says. "We've got a lot of educating to do, and the first 12 months will be spent on education. Most people in Britain are totally ignorant about Israel." One thing he is sure of is that 85% of the business generated will come from the general market, because "the Jewish market is tied up." Israel has neglected travel agents over the past five years says Gafni. "It's very important to start wooing them again because they are our liaison to the wider public." The best year for tourism from the UK was 2000, the year in which 200,000 British tourists came to Israel. Gafni is optimistic that this figure can be reached again within the next two years. "The British pound goes a very long way in Israel. It can buy a lot."