The number of UK tourists heading to Israel is snowballing. Earlier this year, the Israel Government Tourist Office (IGTO) announced a year-on-year increase of 10% in 2015, to 197,859 – one of the largest market increases across Europe for the destination.
Volatility in other parts of the Middle East has had a knock-on effect, argues Patrick Millar, marketing manager at Kirker Holidays. “While our business to many destinations in north Africa and the Middle East has declined in recent years, demand for tailor-made holidays to Israel has grown steadily, with most Kirker clients appreciating that Israel has a security infrastructure that is among the world’s most advanced.”
The figures have also undoubtedly been bolstered by an increase in airlift. Last December, Monarch Airlines commenced new scheduled routes to Tel Aviv and Ovda (near the Red Sea gateway of Eilat) from Luton. And in April this year Monarch also added a Manchester to Tel Aviv service. Israel’s national carrier, El Al, has also increased its services to Tel Aviv – offering 28 flights from Heathrow and Luton a week – while easyJet continues to operates flights to Tel Aviv out of Luton, Gatwick and Manchester.
And operators appear to be reaping the benefits. G Adventures’ Israel Explorer trip is up 70% this year compared with last, while earlier this year the company also launched a new Israel and Beyond trip – part of its National Geographic Journeys with G Adventures programme. “When I did product planning with the National Geographic teams, this was one of the destinations they 100% wanted to have in the pipeline,” explains Jackie Garrity, product manager for National Geographic Journeys at G Adventures. “There’s so much potential and there’s so much interest [in the region] and the sales for this trip are already through the roof.”
The Levantine nation’s draws are plain to see. The cradle of the world’s three major monotheistic religions (Judaism, Christianity and Islam) has an undeniably absorbing political landscape, hosts some of the world’s most fabled sites (the Dead Sea and the Dome of the Rock, to name just two) and is home to one of the world’s oldest continuously inhabited cities. “This really is a trip for travellers who are very much curious and wanting to learn,” notes Garrity. “People who want to go beyond the news headlines. Historically and spiritually Israel has such great importance. [Having said that] this trip is not necessarily for people who are looking for religious tourism.”
Rebecca Russell, escorted touring operations assistant at Riviera Travel, finds that there is no such thing as an “average” UK visitor to Israel. “One thing that really struck me about this destination in particular was the mix of customers – people seem to travel for lots of different reasons. We had quite a lot of solo travellers. I’m not religious at all, but it really did surprise me how much I was interested.” It’s a destination that can throw up lots of surprises, she adds. “People expect it to be incredibly conservative, and don’t get me wrong, it is in some areas, but it’s actually a really forward-thinking country. Tel Aviv in particular is very progressive.”
It’s less than a six-hour flight to Israel from London, and once there, the great diversity in such a small area also impresses the operator’s clients, Russell notes. “From the Sea of Galilee to the Negev desert you could be in two completely different countries. It’s four hours between them by coach, and that’s the longest transfer on our itinerary. It really is easy to travel there, especially if you’re on an escorted tour.”
Escorted touring aside, interest in Tel Aviv as a city break destination is also growing. Itzik Avni, chief concierge at the Ritz-Carlton Herzliya, which opened in December 2013, explains its charms: “Tel Aviv is unique in so many ways; apart from the amazing beaches and distinctive architectural landscape, the diversity of the population contributes to an endless variety of cuisines, opinions and styles. Israel offers the largest number of museums per-capita, the biggest vegan population ratio and is a cradle of innovation and creativity.”
The hotel, located five miles north of the city, offers guests a tailor-made concierge guide named Blends, which incorporates exclusive, behind-the-scenes experiences across five different areas, from culinary to science, fashion and more. Avni offers some examples: “We recently took a guest to experience street photography; joined by a photographer we toured Tel Aviv through the lens of the camera. We then visited a gallery afterhours escorted by the curator who gave Blends visitors a personal introduction to the local contemporary art scene. Another guest joined a Tel Aviv fashionista on a walk through the Tel Aviv street style, they created together a Pinterest board of style while exploring exclusive designer studios for jewellery, leather bags and shoes and continued the evening in a mixology workshop at a trendy bar.”
On Tel Aviv’s emerging prominence, Kirker’s Millar adds: “Tel Aviv makes a great city break because it combines European cafe culture, trendy bars and restaurants and a swathe of golden sandy beach with a proudly Middle Eastern flavour and a uniquely fascinating history. No other city in the world fuses 10,000 years of history with cosmopolitan Mediterranean style quite so alluringly.”
Visas: UK citizens do not need a visa to visit Israel as a tourist – visitors are granted leave to enter for a period of up to three months.
Passport stamps: Some Middle Eastern countries don’t allow entry to those who have previously visited Israel, notes Garrity. To get around this, the government set up a pilot scheme in January 2013, whereby visitors are given an entry card instead of a passport stamp, which must be kept until leaving the country.
Dress code: “You do have to dress modestly,” says Jackie Garrity, product manager for National Geographic Journeys at G Adventures. “Women should carry a shawl for a mosque, synagogue or church and men do have to wear a skull cap in synagogues.”
Prepare your clients for the airport: Clients flying to Israel on national airline El Al should expect to be questioned at their departure airport. “Even in Heathrow, before you leave, you have a one-on-one interview,” says Rebecca Russell, escorted touring operations assistant at Riviera Travel. On departing and leaving airports in Israel, visitors should also prepare to be questioned about their travelling plans and companions, as well as any previous visits to other Middle Eastern nations.
Safety: “There is a lot of security in Israel, so people should not be concerned when they see checkpoints or security personnel,” says Garrity. Russell adds: “As a single woman walking around on my own I was surprised at how safe I felt.”
When to visit: Spring and autumn are the best times to visit, notes Russell, as the summer season is really hot.