India tourism minister: Nearly every Indian wants to visit Jerusalem - Israel News | Haaretz Daily Newspaper
New tourism agreement aims to double the number of flights between the two countries in three years.
By Rina Rozenberg | 06:59 27.06.12
As soon as he boarded the plane to Israel last week, India's tourism minister, Subodh Kant Sahai, experienced firsthand one of the central problems facing Israeli-Indian tourism today.
The minister arrived in Israel on Saturday - for the first official visit by an Indian tourism minister in more than two decades - on a continuing flight on Royal Jordanian, rather than a direct flight on the Israeli carrier El Al.
The minister really did not have much choice: El Al does not fly on Shabbat, and it is the only carrier to operate direct flights between India and Israel. Air India has not operated direct flights to and from Israel since the 1990s.
So, for Sahai, the only option was to choose from among three airlines that fly from India to Israel via Uzbekistan, Jordan or Turkey.
Sahai has made tourism to India part of the government's agenda, and the results can already be seen on the ground: In 2011, India had some 7 million tourists, compared with 5.8 million in 2010. The number is fairly small considering the size of the country; Israel took in 3.4 million tourists last year.
"Our target for 2016 is 12 million tourists per year. At the moment we are short 200,000 hotel rooms," Sahai said this week, inviting Israeli investors "to come build hotels in India."
Sahai, who is pursuing charter flights between India and Israel by private carriers, met this week with Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, senior travel industry officials, members of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association and Israeli wholesalers.
Katz and Sahai agreed to promote a new bilateral aviation agreement that will allow charter flights for the first time and replace the current agreement, which dates back to 1994, under which only one airline can fly each way on the Israel-India line.
During the meeting, the ministers discussed the immense potential for developing tourism between the two countries and the need to increase the number of flights between them. According to the Indian tourism minister, "Nearly every Indian wants to come and visit Jerusalem."
The new agreement is expected to double the number of flights between Israel and India.
The Indian tourism minister and his Israeli counterpart, Stas Misezhnikov, set a goal of doubling the number of tourists between the countries within three years. In the coming year, the Israeli Tourism Ministry plans to open an office in India and put NIS 2.5 million into marketing, with the aim of increasing the number of Indian tourists to Israel each year.
"India is a fast-growing market that has registered a substantial rise in tourism to Israel," Misezhnikov said after the meeting. "The potential inherent in this market has yet to be realized fully, and so the Tourism Ministry is working to expand ties with the relevant government officials and with the tourism industry in the country."
According to a survey conducted by the Tourism Ministry in 2011, 93% of tourists from India stayed in hotels. All of the tourists were classified as average and above-average earners.
But apparently it is not so simple to get Indians to travel the world: Although India has a population of 1.21 billion people, it generates outgoing tourism of only 14 million people a year, and most Indians make do with internal tourism, which is considered extensive (740 million visits annually ).
"Our goal is 100,000 tourists a year from Israel," Sahai announced. But, judging by the figures for 2011, he still has a long way to go: The Indian embassy issued a mere 35,000 visas to Israelis last year, though that does represent a 9% increase over the previous year. India took in a total of 50,000 Israeli tourists in 2011.
In Israel, the numbers are even lower - 40,000 tourists a year - but the upward tendency is more significant: Since the beginning of this year, there has been a 30% increase in the number of tourists entering Israel from India, and if this trend continues, Israel may take in more than 50,000 Indian tourists in 2012. India is currently ranked as the number one source of incoming Asian tourists to Israel.
Easing visa rules
During the visit this week, the ministers signed a memorandum of cooperation to promote tourism between India and Israel. In it, they agreed to set up a forum to be made up of representatives of both countries, a representative from the Indian embassy in Israel, travel agents and wholesalers.
"The forum's discussions will deal with the difficulties and obstacles that exist today in advancing tourism between India and Israel, with the object of increasing the flow of tourism between the two countries," Sahai said.
One of the main difficulties, Sahai noted, pertains to the visas that Israeli tourists must obtain if they wish to enter India. The visa is valid for six months from the time it is issued, not from the date of entry, which compels Israeli tourists to obtain visas close to their date of departure.
Furthermore, the visa stipulates that an Israeli tourist who receives permission to enter India once, and who then returns to Israel, may not re-enter India for another six months. "The forum is supposed to discuss this problem too, and try to find ways to ease visas both for the Israeli tourist and the Indian tourist," Sahai said.
According to data from the Indian embassy in Israel, many of the Israeli travelers in India today are backpackers of post-army age who stay for three to six months. Sahai said he would like to encourage other kinds of Israel visitors as well.
"Today we already get many businesspeople and Israelis who came in the past when they were young, and [who] return with their spouses and children for a family trip," he said. "People come to us by word of mouth. India can attract lots of Israelis with the variety of products we have."