The travel adviser: The Middle Kingdom and Israel

The Chinese are savants of civilization. For thousands of years they have absorbed ethnicities into their own culture.

Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara, and Israeli Ambassador to China Matan Vilnai cut the ribbon at an opening ceremony for a coffeehouse at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum. (photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
Benjamin Netanyahu, his wife Sara, and Israeli Ambassador to China Matan Vilnai cut the ribbon at an opening ceremony for a coffeehouse at the Shanghai Jewish Refugees Museum.
(photo credit: AVI OHAYON - GPO)
China is one of the oldest cultures in the world, with a rich history that dates back thousands of years. Israel and the Jews that reside there also lay claim to one of the oldest cultures in the world, also with a rich history dating back thousands of years.
The modern State of Israel recently celebrated its 68th birthday, while present-day China as a communist country is also in its 68th year of existence.
Why are travel and trade between these two countries attracting so many investors and tourists of late?
We need to understand why China is called the Middle Kingdom. This is the most traditional name that China uses in referring to itself. This form of ethnocentrism, the belief that one’s own country is the “center” of world in both a cultural and historical standpoint, implies their significance in the world. The use of the term is a form of pride.
The Chinese are savants of civilization. For thousands of years they have absorbed ethnicities into their own culture, eliminating on occasion tribes that proved too troublesome. They have watched other civilizations come and go; they have seen their neighbors adopt parts of their culture and then try to assert their superiority, and ultimately fail. They have seen too many civilizations fail from their own flaws.
There is no greater compliment to a culture than to be admired by the Chinese who, with some justification, regard their civilization as the world’s most ancient and, in the long run, most successful.
The high regard that the Chinese have for Jews should be a source of pride for the latter. Traveling throughout China will be devoid of any form of anti-Semitism. In fact, it is very pleasant indeed for an Israeli to spend time in China. The sad history of Jew hatred has left scars on every European nation, but it is entirely absent in the world’s largest country. On the contrary.
To the extent that Chinese people know something of the Jews, their response is instinctively sympathetic.
Both cultures, the Chinese emphasize, share respect for family, learning and, yes, money.
Israel was the first country in the Middle East to recognize the People’s Republic of China as the legitimate government of China, although China did not establish normal diplomatic relations with Israel until 1992.
In fact, it was the Israel-China military cooperation in the 1980s that established the framework for diplomatic relations. Israel provided China with arms during that period, often to the deep dissatisfaction of the United States. Since then, Israel and China have developed increasingly close commercial, military and strategic links. China is Israel’s third-largest trading partner globally and its largest trading partner in Asia, with trade volume nearing the $10 billion mark. Recently the governments signed a bilateral free trade agreement, and the recent addition of a Chinese carrier to the Israeli skies portends even stronger ties between the two countries.
To date, only two airlines fly nonstop from Tel Aviv to China. El Al and Hainan Airlines have elected to focus their flights in Beijing. Professionally it’s been a matter of pride, as I’ve seen so many Israeli companies look to the East, realizing that the potential for success was far greater than looking toward Europe.
More than 1,000 Israeli start-up companies have set up operations in China. Israel’s open, innovative and risk-taking approach to high technology, as well as Israel’s rapid economic rise towards a hi-tech superpower, has been appealing to the typical Chinese entrepreneur, as the concept of risk-taking is not deeply rooted in China’s culture with its approach to failure. With the increasing economic cooperation between the two countries, China is spearheading an increasing number of partnerships with Israeli universities, such as the Tel Aviv University and Tsinghua University’s $300 million joint research center; a $130 million donation to the Technion; and a program devoted to teaching the Israeli business culture at Peking University.
El Al started its flights to Beijing in 1991, and it took 25 years before a Chinese carrier decided that Israel was a viable market. The airline chosen to make those flights was only created in 1989; and until it started advertising its presence in Israel, I’d make a wager that few consumers had ever heard of Hainan Airlines.
Hainan Airlines was established in October 1989 as Hainan Province Airlines in Hainan, the largest special economy zone in China but not a place many regular tourists opt to visit. Renamed Hainan Airlines in January 1993, it is considered China’s fourth-largest airlines.
Its newest destination is Tel Aviv, utilizing a two-class Airbus 333 with a seating capacity of 295 passengers.
The business class, with 36 lay flat bed seats, is complemented by 186 standard economy class seats.
Customer reviews generally give positive comments about the cuisine and comfort level. A quick perusal notes attentive service, comfortable seats and clean lavatories. There are, however, two major drawbacks that potential flyers should keep in mind. The Chinese government bans mobile phones even for listening to music, reading a book or taking photos aboard flights.
There have also been complaints that the entertainment system is challenging to operate.
The other drawback is, like El Al, Hainan does not belong to any of the three Global Airline Alliances – One World, Sky Team or Star Alliance.
El Al’s flights to Beijing are operated by an antiquated Boeing 767 offering 22 business class seats. Not quite stretching out flat, they do approach 170 degrees, allowing you to slide to the floor if you’re above average height but comfy enough for those who are vertically challenged. In addition to the 168 economy class seats, El Al offers 28 economy plus seats, which offer an extra whopping eight centimeters separation between the rows of seats.
Unlike its Chinese counterpart, El Al permits mobile phones and their accoutrements on its flights, which can be used at will once the plane is airborne. Neither airline offers Wi-Fi on its planes.
What this increased competition has done is to lower the airfares dramatically. In the past, airlines from Israel or China that made stops cost hundreds of dollars less; but with Hainan Airlines, a $750 economy class fare was introduced, so El Al was forced to lower its fare to $789 to keep its clients from jumping ship.
El Al lowered its business class fare to under $2,800.
While finding space could prove more difficult than mastering Chinese checkers, it is far lower than Hainan’s $3,400 introductory business class fare.
Surprisingly, both airlines face far stronger competition from another airline – not European or Asian but Turkish. Turkish Airlines, in fact, flies between the two countries via Istanbul to three cities in China. With daily flights to Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou (formerly called Canton), it offers far more choices to both the Chinese and Israeli tourist, to say nothing of their business counterparts.
With airfares extremely competitive, as well as partnership in the Star Alliance, the added bonus that Turkish Airlines also permits mobile phones makes it the largest foreign carrier flying to the Middle Kingdom from Israel.
The majority of tourism between China and Israel can be broken down into two categories: cultural tourism and industrial tourism.
Cultural tourism is the subset of tourism concerned with a country or region’s culture, specifically the lifestyle of the people in those geographical areas, the history of those people, their art, architecture, religion and other elements that helped shape their way of life.
This includes tourism in urban areas, particularly historic or large cities, and their cultural facilities such as museums and theaters. It also includes tourism in rural areas showcasing the traditions of indigenous cultural communities, from the famed terra cotta soldiers in China to the first kibbutz in Israel.
It is generally agreed that cultural tourists spend substantially more money than the average business tourists do. For the citizens of both China and Israel, it should be defined as the movement of persons to cultural attractions away from their normal place of residence, with the intention of gathering new information and experiences to satisfy their cultural needs.
These cultural needs can include the solidification of one’s own cultural identity by observing the exotic “other.”
This is usually done in the form of a group tour. Two examples are Rhodes Scholar and Jewish Historical Seminars, both of which go to great lengths to include peer-to-peer interactions.
Industrial tourism is tourism in which the desired destination includes industrial sites peculiar to a particular location. In China, the most obvious industrial tourism destinations are cities and regions with a solid industrial base. For the Chinese, industrial tourism is a potential growth sector that matches with their identity: The sector offers opportunities to strengthen their distinctiveness and image, notably by building onto their existing assets. For the Israeli business traveler, whether it is defense related or a new start-up company, the visit is usually limited to one geographical area. Compare it with the Chinese business person who will take the time on his commercial visit to Israel to visit a tourism site. This is possible due to the small geographical size of Israel compared to the vastness of China.
Travel and trade will continue to strengthen between the two countries. Our commonalities in the world of nations overcome our political differences. We shouldn’t be blinded that while there is much that China admires about Israel, we are still a very small cog in their very large wheel. China recognizes, along with the State of Israel, Palestine and Iran. Never forget that the alleged Chinese saying “May you live in interesting times” is considered a curse and not a blessing.
I prefer a quote from Confucius, that erudite Chinese philosopher from the sixth century: “Wherever you go, go with all your heart.”
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments, email him at [email protected]