MONTREAL — It was Israeli Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov’s first visit to Montreal, but he felt at home.
Growing up in the Soviet Union, he, like many of his compatriots, was a huge hockey fan and the Montreal Canadiens were then the most revered team in the sport.
“I remember, I think it was 1979, the Canadiens came to Moscow to play the top Soviet team. There was no school, no traffic on the street. Everyone stayed home and watched the game,” said Misezhnikov, who was 10 at the time.
That’s the kind of icebreaker Israeli tourism officials are hoping will help win over the Quebec market, which it’s paying a lot more attention to these days.
Misezhnikov is the first Israeli tourism minister to make an official visit to Quebec in more than 10 years.
The Toronto-based Israel Government Tourist Office (IGTO) is trying to make greater inroads into the province by producing more information in French and reaching out to Christian communities, playing up Israel as the Holy Land with Jerusalem at its centre.
At Trudeau Airport, billboards are up advertising Israel as a tourist destination, similar to those that have been around Toronto for years.
Canada is a significant source of tourists for Israel, and that has steadily increased over the past decade to a peak of about 70,000 to 75,000 Canadian tourists in 2011, with an estimated 35 per cent of them coming from Quebec.
Those numbers represent people entering Israel with Canadian passports. The IGTO estimates that another 10,000 to 15,000 visitors from Canada are Canadian citizens or residents using Israeli or other passports.
Of all travellers from Canada heading to Israel, 50 to 55 per cent are thought to be non-Jews.
Israel is also offering tours tailored to haredi Jews – a sizable community in Montreal – that include accommodation in glatt kosher hotels.
Misezhnikov spoke at a breakfast for travel professionals and held a press conference at the upscale Sofitel Hotel. He, Oded Grofman, consul to the IGTO, and Israel’s tourism commissioner to North and South America, Haim Gutin, apologized for not being able to speak French, but Joel Lion, Israel’s francophone consul general in Montreal, did his best to fill in the gap.
The posters and videos shown at the press conference, including a message from new Roman Catholic Cardinal Thomas Collins of Toronto encouraging Holy Land visits, were also only in English.
The absence of any direct flights from Montreal to Tel Aviv is a disadvantage, Grofman acknowledged, but he said there are now many European hubs that make the trip more convenient.
Misezhnikov, a member of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party, has been tourism minister since 2009. He did not hide his frustration with the Palestinian Authority (PA) for not co-operating more with Israel in promoting tourism.
“When Moses took us out of Egypt, he brought us to a great country, but he chose lousy neighbours,” he said.
It’s tough dealing with neighbours that are unstable “and hate you,” but Israel is trying to do so for their mutual benefit, he said.
While Israel enjoyed its best tourism numbers from 2008 to 2011, with almost 3.5 million visitors last year, maintaining that will not be easy, Misezhnikov said.
Instability, particularly in Egypt, where tourism has fallen to almost zero, is hurting regional tour packages, and the continuing economic crisis in Europe is a worry, he said.
Tourism is not only crucial to Israel’s economy, but also politically valuable, he said, because it counters what he sees as Israel’s negative image in the media.
“Every tourist who sees with their own eyes what is really happening and tells his friends and neighbours is the best objective picture [of Israel]. Nearly 100 per cent of our tourists become goodwill ambassadors,” he said.
Misezhnikov said it’s “stupid” of the PA to align its tourism industry more with Hamas than with Israel. “We have tried to develop tourism with the PA over the past three years, but have not had much success,” and he blames the Palestinians.
Working together is important, he said, because Christian pilgrims visit sacred sites in both the West Bank and Israel, and they want travel between jurisdictions to be smooth, including keeping the same tour guide.
Co-operation between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as Egypt and Jordan, would be “a win-win situation, a mutual gain,” he said.
Misezhnikov dismissed any apprehension about imminent conflict with Iran.
“The threat is not just to Israel. Yes, we are on the frontier line, but Canada is suffering, too… Everyone in the free world is in danger when a nuclear weapon gets in the hands of a crazy guy, and [that means] in the hands of terrorist organizations around the world. We don’t know where there will be an attack.”