Visits to Israel at record levels, says new tourism consul in Canada

The arrivals hall at Ben-Gurion International Airport.

If you’re planning a trip to the Holy Land before the end of the year, you can count yourself among the record number of Canadians making the 12-hour flight to Israel.

This year is shaping up as yet another record year for visits to Israel, both from Canada and elsewhere, said Gal Hana, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism’s newly installed consul and director for Canada.

Although there are still a few months to go, the ministry is expecting almost 100,000 Canadians will have made the trip in 2019, up from 87,000 in 2018. About 48,000 visited the country in the first half of 2019, “the best ever six-month period,” he said.

On a global scale, the numbers are even better. Altogether, some 4.2 million people will have visited the Holy Land when 2019 comes to a close and the hope, if not the expectation, is that five million will visit in 2020.

Gal Hana, Israel’s new tourism director in Canada, stands in front of a sign promoting tourism to the Holy Land.

As for the Canadian figures, Hana believes there is still plenty of room to grow.

Hana, who has been on the job for a little over a month, said his mission is to reach out to new groups of potential visitors, to add to the traditional Jewish and Christian cohort of pilgrims who see Israel as an attractive destination because of its religious and historical significance.

There are plenty of other reasons to make Israel your travel destination, he said, whether it’s for a tour of its wineries, its culinary attractions, adventure travel, great beaches or nightlife.

Hana, whose stint as consul is expected to last four years, is helping the ministry roll out its new tourism strategy. About three years ago, the ministry experienced “a paradigm shift” in its approach to marketing Israel. It continued to promote the traditional historic and religious aspects of the country, but added “sub-brands” to “market Israel as a leisure destination on the same level as the United Kingdom, or France,” he said.

At the time, Hana was in charge of technology projects in the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO). One of his mentors at the PMO suggested he shift to the Ministry of Tourism, where his skills in strategic thinking could be put to use in project management and inter-ministerial co-operation, Hana recalled.

He spent two years with the ministry before being told there was an opening in Toronto. The position of consul has been vacant ever since Ami Allon left in July 2015.

Hana consulted with his colleagues about the new opportunity and was told that, “Toronto and Canada have a great potential for tourism to Israel,” he said.

My vision for Canada is to define Israel to customers and stakeholders as a leisure destination that is relevant for everybody, not just faith-based audiences.
– Gal Hana

Canadians are great travellers who are on the lookout for new experiences. What’s more, they are willing to pay for a good product, he added.

Since 2016, the number of Canadian visitors have grown by more than 30 per cent, while interviews with travellers showed a 93 per cent satisfaction rate, with more than 40 per cent of tourists having visited the country before, he said.

Nevertheless, there’s room to grow, Hana insisted, so enhancing relations with tour operators and online travel sites, getting the word out about Israel and using public events to promote the country are some of the areas being considered.

As for the negativity that often accompanies the country in media reports, Hana said security concerns are becoming less of an issue as travellers see the same sorts of incidents happening in other places.

“My vision for Canada is to define Israel to customers and stakeholders as a leisure destination that is relevant for everybody, not just faith-based audiences,” he said. “We want to focus on lifestyle, adventure, the culinary, wineries, hiking. People want new experiences.”

His office is working on a marketing plan for 2020 that will implement a comprehensive approach to promoting Israel tourism, Hana added.