Gulliver a growing giant in Israeli travel

The number of Israelis traveling abroad has remained 290,000 per month for the past 4 years.

While the penchant for travel has long been an entrenched aspect of the Israeli lifestyle, the worldwide tourism industry has, nevertheless, been slow to gear up for the Hebrew-speaking market. Enter Tel Aviv-based tour operator Gulliver, which has identified both phenomena as a base from which to build its business. As Israel's only entirely Internet-based travel operator, the business has bucked the now infamous four-slow-years in the local tourism industry, to show consistent growth since launching its Web site ( in May 2002. "Our turnover has increased by at least 50 percent each year since we went live," said Zvika Karpel, general manager of Gulliver. "Part of our success is that we focus entirely on outbound travel, [so] while inbound activity was severely affected by the Intifada, we were not." Trend data from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) show that the number of Israelis traveling abroad has been around 290,000 per month over the past four years. Approximately 2.1 million locals left for overseas travel in the first half of this year, a rise of 4% over the same period in 2004, according to the CBS. With more than 1 million hits per month and an average 45,000 unique users each day, Karpel said that some 50,000 clients made bookings through Gulliver last year. With its staff of approximately 75, Gulliver is part of the Worldspan global distribution system - the largest provider of Internet-based travel information, Web products and connectivity, and e-commerce capabilities for travel agencies - and is one of just a few agencies in Israel with a direct connection to its server. The company operates non-stop, with a 24 hour help line that takes calls from all over the world. The website is split into two sections - travel abroad and travel within Israel - with various subsections within each. For overseas travel, there are opportunities for deals on charter flights, regular flights, holiday packages, organized tours, cruises, car rentals, last minute deals, and ski vacations. The charter flight module, according to Karpel, is the most popular and rapidly growing section on the site. "If you consider the number of people traveling and that there are a total 600,000 seats on charter flights available during the year, you will recognize the potential for growth in this area," he said. "Not that the scheduled flights market isn't picking up either." The cruise option and ski packages, two of the more recent additions to the Website, are areas Karpel said are difficult to sell but have generated a lot of interest. Catering to the local travel market, the site focuses on hotel options, giving information and booking options for all hotels in Israel. It also has two additional specialist sections for up-market lodgings and travel to Sinai. "Despite the lull in Sinai traffic between June and August, we still sell packages there everyday," Karpel noted. To provide a more reliable rating for the Sinai experience, Gulliver has introduced its own grading of the peninsula's hotels, providing both the hotel's star rating and a more comparable [and familiar] Israeli rating. "People have come to trust us, and in places like the Sinai, it's important to go with the best possible knowledge of what to expect," he said. Effectively planning one's vacation has become the driving philosophy behind the business model, and Karpel stressed the site's ability to allow one to travel smart (latset hacham). "Israelis don't like to be taken as a freier (sucker)," he said, smiling. "They want all the information on where they are going." To instill consumer confidence in the company, Gulliver has just completed a countrywide advertising and branding campaign, investing NIS 2 million in the project. "As an online virtual company, we need to show who is behind the website, to show our building, that we're a serious operation and that there is security in making a booking through the Web with us," he said. And the investment has paid off. In its short time on the scene, Gulliver has become one of three Websites - along with Issta and Daka Tishim - controlling approximately 70% of the Internet market, with hundreds of smaller operations making up the rest. Meanwhile, in February, Gulliver was named the best tourism website in the Israeli market at the 2005 Web Awards. While the business is firmly established as a major player in the industry, Karpel and his team are not stopping there. They are planning to launch further modules, including a Global hotel module, which will connect to four global hotel networks, as well as a facelift to its car rental section, which has not produced the same success as the other areas. "We're even thinking of the inbound market and developing an English version of the site," Karpel said. In the meantime though, it's the Israeli market that he is focusing on and he's confident it will continue to provide a solid base for the business. "We live in an environment where you need the two weeks of escape," Karpel says. "Israelis will always go abroad - they won't stop traveling."