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Saturday, December 27, 2014

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New chief takes over Israel’s tourism office

Tags: Travel
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Ami Allon

TORONTO — Over the past few years, the number of people from around the world travelling to Israel has grown and grown. Both 2010 and 2011 were record years, topping out at around 3.5 million visitors.

Tourists travelling on Canadian passports make up a modest proportion of that number – only around 70,000 – but the Ministry of Tourism wants to see that number grow to 100,000 in the next five years.

Coincidentally, that period corresponds to Ami Allon’s planned sojourn here. Allon is the latest emissary from Israel sent to continue the development of the Canadian market. He follows Oded Grofman as director of the Israel Government Tourist Office (IGTO). Grofman recently returned to Israel after a five-year stint, during which Canadian passport holders travelling to Israel grew from around 60,000. Another 15 per cent were travellers who held Israeli or other passports.

When Grofman took over the tourism office in 2007, the ministry also viewed 100,000 as an attainable number for Canada, and even wanted to double the overall numbers to Israel to around five million.

There’s nothing stopping the ministry from setting ambitious goals, but there’s clearly still work to be done.

Allon enters the job with hopes of boosting the business. But first, he said, he’s got to get a feel for the Canadian market.

“My first goal is to understand the market,” Allon said. “I’m coming to a place I never lived in before.”

Israel has lots to offer travellers of all stripes, he continued, but as someone with a background in marketing and advertising, he says you have to tailor your campaign to your audience.

With that in mind, he’s planning to meet tour operators who sell Israel – and others for whom Israel is still an afterthought – meet community leaders and eventually travel across the country to determine the best way to promote the country. “The product has to fit the customer,” he said.

Israel has much to offer travellers, Allon continued. It is unparallelled for its combination of sites with historic and religious significance – aspects that are well-known to the bulk of Jewish and Christian visitors.

“There is so much potential in Canada,” Allon said. “There are many Jews and Christians who have never been there.”

Once there, visitors tend to return. “We have a lot of repeaters,” he said, “something like 60 per cent” and they tend to be great ambassadors for the country.

There’s another side of Israel that Grofman promoted and which Allon likewise believes can attract a different kind of visitor – “sophisticated” travellers who could just as easily choose to vacation in Italy and France. For that potential audience, the IGTO promotes Israel’s wineries, cuisine, adventure activities, spas and cultural offerings, which together with its rich history make it an unparallelled destination, he said.

Although Allon has never lived in Canada for an extended period, he has been here before. His first visit came 22 years ago, when as a 16-year-old he came to Toronto for a visit. It was a memorable 3-1/2 week vacation with his aunt, he recalled.

Along with his brother, he was exposed to big city life – “so many people.”

The two hailed from a small kibbutz, Kiryat Anavim, just west of Jerusalem, and were not used to a city the size of Toronto. They learned to get around on the subway and by bus, and their aunt enrolled them in a sailing course on the Toronto Islands.

“It was an excellent time,” and ever since “I had Canada in the back of my mind,” he said.

After returning to Israel, Allon earned an MBA and worked for 4-1/2 years as a project manager for a Jerusalem advertising company. Then he worked as a cadet and assistant to the vice-president of marketing for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

He joined the ministry because, “I was really excited about the possibility of promoting Israel overseas… and working in the marketing and travel industry,” he said.

During an on-the-job placement, he was sent to Toronto to work under Grofman to see how the office is run and to get practical experience.

“I was fortunate to go to this office. Oded was so welcoming and professional. [IGTO staff] Ellen [Melman] and Jerry [Adler] were very helpful,” he said.

Back in Israel, two openings came up – one in Toronto and another in England. Allon said he was lucky to get the Canadian posting. “I always heard Canada was one of the best places to live in. I find the people are kind and welcoming.”

Allon is being joined in Toronto by his wife, Mari, and children, Daniel, 8, Maya, 6, and Noam, one month old.

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