TORONTO — It’s getting close to the time when Oded Grofman will park the RV for good, put away his skates and other hockey paraphernalia and pack for the trip back to Israel.
As director of the Toronto-based Israel Government Tourist Office (IGTO), Grofman has promoted travel to Israel over the past five years. If the numbers are any indication, he’s been pretty good at it. Since his arrival, the flow of tourists heading to Israel for vacations and other stays has grown from 50,000 to 75,000 – a jump of 50 per cent.
And while the Israeli-born Grofman has done his best to get Canadians to visit the Holy Land, he’s reciprocated by adapting as best he could to Canadian culture. Among the Canadian things he and his family have enjoyed are the camping trips in national and provincial parks – hence the RV – and the hockey lessons he and other Israelis enjoyed every week at a north Toronto hockey school.
He’s likely also seen more of the country than a typical poutine-eating, maple syrup-loving native Johnny Canuck.
He’s enjoyed his sojourn here in the Great White North, but sometime in August he, his wife and two sons will be back in Israel. He is being replaced by Ami Alon, as of September.
Although Grofman won’t be working for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism, he’ll remain in the industry as deputy director general of the Israel Incoming Tour Operator Association. That organization’s goal is to protect the interests of Israel’s incoming tour operators while promoting and developing the country’s tourism industry.
Tourism and travel gets into your blood, he explained during a recent retrospective interview at the IGTO’s downtown office.
Grofman, who left the private sector to take a job promoting travel to Israel, executed the Tourism Ministry’s game plan to a tee, with the resulting resurgence in visits to the Holy Land.
That strategic approach meant targeting three distinctive market segments – Jewish travellers, Christian pilgrims, and “sophisticated” travellers who favour exotic locales that offer fine dining, adventurous experiences, good beaches, clubs, music events and the like.
When he first came to Toronto, he didn’t know much about the Canadian market, he acknowledged. “I read about it and talked to people who served here. I didn’t know the players, the Jewish community, or the Christian community. I was very green.”
His first task on arrival was to “stabilize” the Toronto office, which had been run out of New York for one year after his predecessor left the job.
Then there were all the introductions to be made, meeting tour operators, airline officials, travel agents in Toronto and across the country.
He found that many significant tour operators did not offer Israel as a destination. It wasn’t even on their radar, he said.
His approach: find the tour operators and bring them to Israel to see first hand they could offer the country as a destination free of concerns over security. He encouraged the creation of packages that sold the country for its religious, spiritual, historical and cultural aspects, as well as for its appeal to “sophisticated” travellers.
He and his staff promoted the country across media platforms, with many magazine and newspaper stories being the result.
He also reached out to a number of cultural communities, including Chinese Canadians and of course, religious communities.
At a farewell breakfast in his honour last week, representatives of some of those communities gushed over Grofman’s people skills.
Father Thomas Rosica, chief executive officer of Salt and Light, a Catholic media organization, recalled meeting Grofman in Israel in August 2007 in Bethany. “He instantly won people’s hearts,” he said.
He’s been working with Grofman ever since, and he credits him with facilitating the production of two documentary films created by Salt and Light.
The films, Journey of Light and Within Your Gates, focus on pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The documentaries have been widely seen by Canadian and American Catholics as well as leaders in Vatican, including the current Pope, he said.
“The Vatican is thrilled we have such a relationship,” Father Rosica said.
Grofman “is a great ambassador for Israel, the Jewish people and the Holy Land,” Father Rosica added.
In other remarks, Eric Chan, deputy general secretary of the Showers of Blessing Ministry, lauded Grofman’s efforts at reaching out to Chinese Canadians.
Joining in the plaudits, Haim Gutin, Israel commissioner for tourism, North and South America, said when he first met Grofman in 2007, he was taken by his personality. “He was so warm, so nice and he was so knowledgeable. It was nice to talk to him.”
Addressing the farewell breakfast, Grofman said he enjoyed working in an industry that “fulfilled people’s dreams and made them happy.”
As he prepares to leave, after spending the long weekend at the lake, he recounted asking his seven-year-old son, Yuval, how he felt going back to Israel.
Happy and sad, his son replied “and that’s exactly how I feel,” Grofman agre