The Travel Adviser: The East, the Far East and nothing but the East

Both India and China have become the darlings of the Israel government, its economy and the tourism industry.

Dancers welcome Rivlin to Chandigarh, India (photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
Dancers welcome Rivlin to Chandigarh, India
(photo credit: TOVAH LAZAROFF)
It was back in 2001 that a leading economist at Goldman Sachs coined the acronym BRIC, for Brazil, Russia, India and China as the largest emerging markets economies. His assertion was that he expected them to grow faster than the developed countries and to play an increasingly important role in the world – and so they have.
Fast forward to 2017. Both India and China have become the darlings of the Israel government, its economy and the tourism industry. Trade and travel between India and China with Israel have grown beyond the wildest expectations of even the sagest of government clerks. Just recently the largest defense contract in Israel’s history includes a $1.6 billion contract from the Indian army for an advanced missile system. IAI, the Israel Aerospace Industries, made headlines when it announced that it had been awarded defense contracts in India totaling almost $2 billion. Their Israeli travel agency was salivating as it started calculating the increase in air travel between the two countries to handle the new business deal.
El Al is the only airline operating nonstop flights between the two countries, flying several times a week to Mumbai with prices to match having a monopoly on the route. Turkish Air has put a large dent into the marketplace with airfares hundreds of dollars less than El Al’s. Most people make the erroneous assumption that the bulk of Israeli travelers to India were made up of adventure-seeking young-at-heart passengers eager to find inner peace and mindfulness among the ashrams of India.
In actuality, travelers of all ages flock to resorts specializing in Ayurveda Health Resorts and sign up in large numbers for organized tours to savor the waters in those sacred streams. Marketing their message with “Ayurveda is not merely a system of healing but an entire way of life that aims to bring about the perfect balance of the entire personality,” they’ve cultivated a fervent group of believers.
Business travelers to the Indian subcontinent eschew such resorts, focusing on the burgeoning reputation of India’s high-tech partners. India has become one of Israel’s largest trading partners, forging joint ventures that are successfully competing in the tough international marketplace. Trade and cooperation between the countries now center primarily on security-related deals and assistance in areas such as water desalination and agriculture.
India’s independence as a sovereign state in Aug 1947 predates Israel’s own independence by a mere nine months with both countries declaring their freedom from the United Kingdom. Nevertheless, it took the newly independent countries until 1992 for them to establish full diplomatic relations.
Relations between New Delhi and Jerusalem were not always warm. For most of its history, India was a leader in the non-aligned movement, whose raison d’etre was to develop close relations with the Arab world and the Soviet Union. India’s large Muslim population, well over 100 million, was another major obstacle to a thaw in the relationship with Israel.
What’s changed is not only the price of oil, removing the threat of Arab boycotts from the political radar screen, but the security and defense required by India, which Israel was able and only too eager to provide. Did it help that thousands of Indians travailed to Israel for special courses and training in agricultural technology? Of course! Was the case for a stronger relationship made when Israel sent humanitarian relief to India following a devastating earthquake in 2001? Indubitably! One would assert, though, that supplying weapons and training soldiers to aid India in skirmishes and near wars with Pakistan is the true reason for the warmer relationship.
The countries began coordinating counter-terrorism strategy in 2012 and signed an intelligence-sharing agreement in 2014 to fight radical Islamic extremism. The prime ministers of both countries met in 2014. It was the newly elected Prime Minister of India, Narenda Modi, who reiterated that joint collaboration was the only path to take. The pinnacle of the now warm and deep relations culminated last November when Israeli President Reuven Rivlin visited India, accompanied by a large delegation of business people eager to discuss further investments.
According to data from the Israeli Airports Authorities, the number of passengers flying directly between the two countries approached 160,000 in 2016. The majority, more than 100,000, were Israelis traveling to India, while India managed to send approximately 50,000 tourists to Israel. In 2013 the Israel Tourism Ministry opted to open a bureau in Israel and began bringing over India Travel Agents to learn about the Holy Land. On an encouraging note, those Indians that come to Israel tend to spend more on average than other tourists.
Many Israelis travel to India after they complete their military service. In the army, these young men and women have to undergo intense training and abide by strict codes of discipline. India provides a mellow antithesis to such a regimen, and beckons to travelers in many other ways.
India provides foreigners with a lot of freedom, so long as they respect basic cultural tenets, and even if these are flouted, Indians are usually rather laid back, clement and tolerant. Traveling in India is economical, meaning that using the stipend Israelis obtain upon completion of their military service, or after saving some money; they can travel for a long time, as opposed to other economies where they could only afford a shorter sojourn.
A spiritual air pervades India. There is an ancient culture of seeking that permeates the land. There is a softness and kindness that succors the heart. India is vast. There is so much to discover in one country. Hardly any other place in the world offers such a richness and diversity of scenic landscapes, cultures, peoples, etc. Tired of the mountains? Go to Kerala or Goa and hang out at the beach. Feel like trekking? Ladakh is one of the best destinations in the world for hikers. How about spending some time in the desert? Go to Rajasthan. Want to meditate or study yoga? Go to an ashram... etc., etc.
While India is considered an exotic destination because the landscape and culture differ so much from Israel, it is easy to travel there with the abundance and availability of public transportation, accommodation, etc., and there is almost always someone around who speaks English – or even Hebrew in the more touristy areas.
Monopolies are made to be broken and very soon, El Al will lose her bragging rights as the sole carrier flying nonstop.
Consider one of the largest airlines in the world, in business more than 70 years. Sprinkle on that being a partner in the Star Alliance Airline partnership along with such stalwarts as United Airlines & the entire Lufthansa Group. Throw in flights to 90 domestic and international destinations and you come up with Air India.
The government-owned flagship carrier of India, the third-largest airline in terms of passengers, is coming to Ben Gurion Airport. Forget about Mumbai – Air India wants you to fly to New Delhi, and with three weekly flights commencing in the spring, has both the wherewithal and wisdom to crack wide open the skies over Tel Aviv. Details are still sketchy; flights have yet to be preloaded in the Global Distribution Systems used by travel agents around the world and the marketing push has yet to be presented, but Air India in basic cricket parlance will be an all-rounder.
CHINA AND Israel’s tourism and trade relationship is better known. Cathay Pacific flies nonstop from Hong Kong into Tel Aviv, while Hainan Airlines challenges El Al on the Beijing leg. Chinese companies have relentlessly been buying large Israel conglomerates. Never in Israel’s existence has the East been so attractive.
The Israeli government – keen to tap a growing Asian middle class armed with passports and eager to explore the globe – has thrown its weight behind a number of creative efforts to promote Israel as a destination for tourists from India and China. Incoming tour operators and the Tourism Ministry tout Israel to Indian and Chinese tourists as a travel experience that mixes history, culture and a contemporary lifestyle. Aiming for 50,000 Indians and 50,000 Chinese in 2017 is the goal. While still a drop in the bucket in terms of potential – about 20 million Indians and 120 million Chinese traveled overseas last year – the number of visitors continues to grow.
The other advantage of having more carriers flying Indian and Chinese tourists into Israel is that the prices from Israel continue to drop. It takes eight hours to fly directly to Mumbai; nine and a half hours from Tel Aviv bring you into Beijing. Yet flying far greater distances, specifically to New York has historically seen far lower fares. That should begin to change with the increased competition, which will generate more interest among Israelis of all ages to consider India and China as a traveling destination.
Professing that more Israelis will travel this spring and summer to Europe and the United States is a no-brainer. They will. But the Far East beckons like some great unknown. As Mahatma Gandhi, the leader of Indian’s Independence movement said: “Live as if you were to die tomorrow. Learn as if you were to live forever.”
Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at mark.feldman@