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How Israel is courting tourists from India and China

When Bollywood star and Indian fashion icon Sonam Kapoor appeared on the cover of the June-July issue of Harper’s Bazaar Bride, India, she did so wearing a sheer pink confection and a radiant smile.

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DEBRA KAMIN

Behind her sprawled the Old City of Jerusalem. 

It wasn’t happenstance. The Israeli government – keen to tap into a growing Asian middle class who are armed with passports and eager to explore the globe – has thrown its weight behind a number of creative efforts to promote Israel as a destination for tourists from India and China.

Kapoor, a fixture in Bollywood films and the daughter of renowned Indian actor and producer Anil Kapoor, came to Israel in May as a guest of the Israel Tourism Ministry. The hope is that A-list celebrity endorsements, in the form of social media posts, will translate to millions of shekels in tourist visits down the road.

In the two years since the Gaza War, with tourism still sagging and hotel stays 22 per cent lower than in the months before the war, the Israeli government has doubled down on its efforts to woo Asian visitors. Call it the new frontier for Israeli tourism: When it comes to courting visitors, there is no doubt that the Holy Land is looking east.

“India and China both have a huge economic potential, a huge number of people, and have shown huge growth in the number of people travelling overseas,” said Pini Shani, the director of the Overseas Department at the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

Celebrities, of course, are key to tapping into that potential. Kapoor chronicled her trip with a flurry of Snapchat selfies, which saw her visiting sites around the Old City and showing off a series of big sunglasses in taxis on the way to Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea with gushing captions like “Meeting incredible people through my travels is such a plus!”

While Kapoor came to Israel for the Harper’s layout – the photo shoot featured her frolicking in the streets and alleyways of ancient Jerusalem wearing a number of stunning gowns by both Indian and Israeli designers – she intended to take in a few quick tours of Jerusalem’s holy sites. But according to reports in the Indian media, she and her mother, who accompanied her on the visit, were so smitten by the country that they chose to stay longer.

In August, just after the magazine appeared on newsstands, the Israeli Tourism Ministry kicked off an approximately $1,5 million campaign in India, unveiling a symphony of television ads, print media endorsements and shout-outs on social media, as well as a dedicated website for Indian travellers to Israel.

Such a campaign is not unprecedented; the ministry drew upon its success two years earlier in courting Chinese visitors. The previous drive began with celebrity endorsements that garnered nearly double the number of Chinese visitors to the Jewish state, year over year. 

Back in 2014, just months before the start of the Gaza War, a Chinese film crew crowded the stark bank of the Dead Sea filming a scene for “Old Cinderella” – a Chinese blockbuster starring Zhang Jingchu about a May-December love triangle that played well in the world’s most populous country when it opened a few months later.

Among the elements that made “Old Cinderella” beloved by Chinese viewers – an ageing female protagonist, a dashing young suitor and a romantic former husband determined to woo back his former wife – there was also a surprising amount of stunning Israeli scenery to accompany the soapy dialogue.

“Old Cinderella” filmed in Israel after receiving an approximately $130 000 investment from the Israeli government, which offered its cash injection after being assured that the millions of Chinese viewers who would watch the film would also be treated to sweeping images of Israeli scenery. 

The filmmakers wrote the country into the plot, with the female lead deciding amid a life crisis to restart her career and become a tour guide. It is during a guided tour of the Holy Land, of course, that the bulk of the film’s action occurs.

Zhang isn’t the only Chinese movie star popping up at Israeli tourism sites. A month earlier, actor Liu Ye was hosted by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism and granted an honorary title – tourism goodwill ambassador – for playing his part to promote Israel in his home country.

“I was very impressed by the harmonious and secure local atmosphere,” Liu – whose wife is a French Jew –  was quoted as saying.

The government’s efforts to court Chinese travellers paid off: Visits to Israel this June rose a whopping 93 per cent over June 2015, bolstered by three new nonstop flights each week from Beijing to Tel Aviv on China’s Hainan Airlines.

Also helping were two major achievements from the Tourism Ministry: the cancellation of group visa fees (which were about $9 a person) and the extension of multiple-entry tourist visas up to 10 years.

Visitors from India in 2015 increased 13 per cent over the previous year, and the Israeli government opened its first tourism office in Mumbai last year.

As demand from Asian tourists increases, hotel chains are doing their best to keep up. They are rushing to train chefs in Chinese and Indian cooking flavours, and hosting special workshops on spices and cooking preparations in order to better please their guests’ palates.

In November 2015 – just after opening the Mumbai tourism office – the Israeli government hosted four Indian celebrity chefs, who in exchange for guided tours of the country gave a series of workshops to hotel chefs on how to prepare Indian dishes.

The same month, a quartet of Chinese chefs came to Israel, and at workshops at the Tadmor Hotel in Herzliya and the Dan Gourmet Cooking School in Tel Aviv, they led lessons for Israeli chefs on Chinese spices, oils and preparation of dishes like fried tofu.

Meanwhile, a new government course for Mandarin-speaking tour guides has opened in Israel. Nearly 30 Chinese immigrants to the country – mostly native Mandarin speakers who married Jewish Israelis and earned citizenship in the process – have now passed the certification process to be licenced tour guides.

“There is tremendous demand,” said Noam Porat, a tour guide co-ordinator who helps run the Chinese-language course for would-be guides. “My students are working around the clock. When you compare them to a normal Israeli guide who speaks English and maybe one other language, there isn’t nearly as much business [as there is for Chinese-speaking guides].”

Yang Cheng, a 33-year-old tour guide originally from Huwan, China, who now works on the Asian desk of the tour company Vered, chalks up the demand to a shift in the way Israel is viewed.

“The perception of Israel is changing in Asia,” she said.

Yang points out a fact that the Tourism Ministry is also aware of – Israel may not be the very first choice of travel for Asian tourists, but in a population already mobile and logging air miles, it’s a destination that will still eventually make it to their list.

“The Chinese actually come here with lower expectations,” she said. “This is a good thing because they can’t be disappointed. They hear about Israel on the news, they become curious about it, and when they come here it’s actually peaceful and beautiful. So they go home and tell their friends and relatives, and suddenly you have Chinese tourists who are ambassadors for Israel.” (JTA)

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Shabbat Around The World beams out from Jozi

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More than 75 devices around the globe logged in to Beit Luria’s World Union for Progressive Judaism (WUPJ) Shabbat Around the World programme on Friday, 15 January.

Whether it was breakfast time in California, tea time in Europe, or time to break challah in Johannesburg, participants logged in to take part in Beit Luria’s Kabbalat Shabbat service.

Among those participating were Rabbi Sergio Bergman, the president of the WUPJ; chairperson Carole Sterling; and Rabbi Nathan Alfred, the head of international relations. Singers Tulla Eckhart and Brian Joffe performed songs from a global array of artists, along with Toto’s Africa to add a little local flair to the service. After kiddish was said and bread was broken, Rabbi Bergman thanked Beit Luria for hosting the WUPJ. The shul looks forward to more collaborations with its global friends in the future.

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UJW Sewing School graduates model creations

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The outfits modelled by graduates of the Union of Jewish Women’s (UJW’s) Sewing School were all the more spectacular for the fact that some of their creators had never seen a sewing machine prior to the four-month course.

They were modelled at the school’s graduation ceremony at Oxford Shul on 15 December to much excitement and applause.

UJW executive member and Sewing School Manager Ariane Heneck expressed her gratitude to Chido Tsodzo, the school’s superb teacher, and the event ended with a much appreciated lunch for graduates and their invited guests.

The self-empowerment Sewing School for unemployed men and women was started by the UJW 10 years ago. It now has a small production team of ex-students, and some of its graduates have been employed in factories, while others are selling their own creations.

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Israel Rugby 7s to camp with the Blitzbokke

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The thrill-a-minute Rugby 7s have captured the hearts of fans around the world. The Blitzbokke, South Africa’s national Rugby 7s team, ranks second in the world, and is among the most exciting, formidable, and feared of 7s teams.

Exactly 9 191 km away are the Israelis, an emerging rugby nation that has talent, determination, and a world-class coach in South African Kevin Musikanth. Now, these two squads will meet. The Israeli 7s side will be travelling to the SAS Rugby Academy in Stellenbosch to train with the Blitzbokke.

The Blitzbokke will have the opportunity to prepare for the coming 7s rugby season by measuring their skills of play against the Israelis. And the Israelis, well, they will be rubbing shoulders with, and learning from the best in the world and honing their skills for their coming European Rugby season.

“It’s an opportunity for our boys to learn from the world’s best,” says Musikanth. The SAS Rugby Academy is run by the legendary Frankie Horn, a technical expert whose coaching guidelines and methods are second to none in World Rugby 7s.

Musikanth took over as Rugby 15s head coach in Israel in 2018, and in October 2019, he became director of rugby for the Israeli Rugby Union and head coach for the national programmes of both the 15s and the 7s.

Horn visited Israel last December at the behest of Rugby Israel and its supporting Olympic body and since then, the partnership has continued to grow. The upcoming training camp will begin in Israel, where Horn, together with Phil Snyman, the former Blitzbok captain and multiple world champion winner, will spend a week with the players and coaching staff at Wingate, Netanya, the home base of Rugby Israel. They will then all travel to Stellenbosch for a week’s camp with the Blitzbokke.

“We’ve already seen the difference through our partnership with Frankie. Two of our players were spotted by him on his previous trip to Israel, and have been training at SAS on the off-season,” says Musikanth. The two players are Omer Levinson (scrum half) and Yotam Shulman (lock).

Horn, technical advisor to Rugby Israel’s 7s, says “It is a great opportunity for both teams to derive positive benefit from the camp.”

Israel Rugby has been making considerable professional strides since Musikanth took over the reins. Israel 15s played their 100th test match against Cyprus and celebrated with a 34-22 victory.

“We’re in the top 25 in Europe in 15s and in the top 16 in 7s, the toughest, most competitive continent in world rugby,” says Musikanth, “and I can realistically see us setting our sights on the Top 15 and Top 12 respectively in the future.”

Currently, there are three eligible South Africans who are on the Israeli national squad: Jayson Ferera as flanker (Pirates Rugby Club), Daniel Stein as fly half (studying in Israel), and Jared Sichel as prop (Hamilton’s Rugby Club, Cape Town). Eligibility to play for a national team in rugby is stricter than in other sports. One does not qualify just because one has a passport. One has to have had a parent or grandparent that was born in that country or one has to have lived in the country for at least three years.

“With so much Jewish rugby talent around the world, we would be able to put a world-class Israeli national team together if not for the measures that restrict eligibility to national call ups,” says Musikanth.

The Israel Rugby development project was accelerated thanks to Musikanth initiating Bridges through Rugby. This project is the collective effort of a few South African Jewish businessmen who appreciate the long-term vision of Israel becoming a stronger rugby nation. They have come on board to assist with this most opportune tour. National financial support is fixed and, as such, is limited. While the strong players and national coaches will be attending the training camp in Stellenbosch, there will be some that will, unfortunately, have to stay behind.

“This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for our players and coaches. To get to see the best upfront and feed off their knowledge is going to be incredible,” says Musikanth. “Everyone is eager to go, of course, but there is a cap to the support we have in place. We would like to take a development u20 squad as well as coaching staff who would carry the benefits of this into the future. A rugby visit to Stellenbosch can change rugby lives in many respects. Stellenbosch is rugby utopia!”

Rugby aside, with the Israelis and South Africans camping together, the question of what will be for dinner after a gruelling day’s training may be a matter of contention. A tussle for whether to serve boerewors or shwarma may result in a scrum in the SAS dining hall to determine the outcome.

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