BEIJING — At a pre-departure session for China’s first tour group to Israel, manager Wu Jianguo from China Travel Service answered many questions from his pioneering clients: will all the shops be closed on the day of rest? Are there Chinese restaurants in Israel?
Where can we buy a menorah? Should we not bring any snacks with pork?
Forty Chinese tourists departed Sept. 25 from Beijing for Ben-Gurion Airport, and Wu’s group departed with another 40 on Sept. 28.
The trips are the first fruits of an agreement signed last October by Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and then-Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi that landed Israel on the list of more than 100 countries to have China’s “approved destination status.”
This designation makes it easier for Chinese tourists to travel to Israel, and Israel is hoping this will ultimately lead to a tourism boom. Now the Chinese domestic market for Israel travel is mostly businesspeople, about half of whom make up government delegations, according to El Al’s sales manager for China, Helen Huang.
El Al started its Beijing-Tel Aviv route in 1992 and now has three weekly flights, along with five weekly flights to Hong Kong.
“Now we are thinking of adding a fourth flight to Beijing or upgrading to a 777 for that route,” Huang said. “We might also think about adding service to Shanghai.”
Most of the traffic goes in the other direction, with about 50,000 Israeli visitors to China each year.
Two major Chinese travel companies, China Travel Service and China Youth Travel Service, worked with six approved Israeli agencies to plan a 10-day tour of Israel and Jordan scheduled to coincide with China’s Oct. 1 national holiday marking the republic’s founding in 1949.
Before the agreement went into effect Sept. 15, the companies could not publicly advertise travel to Israel.
The agreement is “another demonstration of Israel and China’s good relations,” said Guy Kivetz, an Israeli Embassy spokesperson.
Some of the travellers were unaware they were making history.
“My wife and I didn’t know until a few days ago this was the first group,” 30-year-old Church Moore (surnamed Mao in Chinese) told JTA as he was checking in Sept. 25 at Beijing Capital Airport. “We have always wanted to go to Israel because we love reading about Jewish history and culture.”
Many group members are older world travellers who regularly patronize one of the two agencies. The Wangs, who declined to give their first names, are in their 50s and have been to other approved Middle Eastern countries, such as Egypt and Turkey, and travelled to the United States and Europe.
They inquired at the youth travel agency about new opportunities and jumped at the chance to visit Israel.
“Israel is a very mysterious place,” Mrs. Wang said. “Also, Israelis are very smart and have persevered through many instances of persecution.”
“Jerusalem, the Dead Sea – we know these places better than we know the names of some countries,” Mr. Wang added.
Nearly all of the tourists mention the word “mysterious” in describing Israel’s appeal, but another major attraction is Christianity’s roots in the country.
At his information session for travellers, Wu pointed out the New Testament connections to the itinerary, and many tourists asked about going to Bethlehem. Asked if they were Christian, all but one raised their hands.
Most analysts say that approximately 80 million Christians live in China, while the government puts the figure at 16 million.
Promoting Israel during an interview with Sohu.com, China’s biggest Internet company, Wu described Israel as a place where “you can have a map in your right hand and a Bible in your left hand and find your way around.”
While intrigue and Christianity are Israel’s major draws for Chinese tourism, it is difficult to find Mandarin-speaking tour guides. Also, the price is high: including visa and airfare, the total per person is 21,800 renminbi, or more than $3,000 (US).
“At that cost you could go to Europe or the United States,” said El Al’s Huang, which is why she advocates quality over quantity in the inaugural years. “We want to slowly increase the number of Chinese tourists coming to Israel, not double or triple the amount every month. The early groups need to encourage the next wave of travellers to choose Israel.”
A representative of Israel’s Ministry of Tourism was quoted in Ha’aretz as saying that Israel’s goal was to bring in 15,000 Chinese tourists by the end of 2008. Observers here, however, said that figure was unlikely.
Israeli Tourism Minister Ruhama Avraham-Balila was in Beijing for the Paralympic Games and talked about a more long-term vision in which “one-half of one per cent of the Chinese population visits Israel.”
That’s about 6.6 million people.