When you first think of Israel and Jordan, you might think these destinations are not doing that well in terms of visitor numbers from the U.S.—they are, after all, in the Middle East, not exactly the “safest” place in our mindset.
But speak to most operators selling tours to Israel and neighboring Jordan and what you hear is numbers are up. “Sales remain strong for Jordan and we are seeing much more interest for Israel due to the new inclusion of the destination in our brochures over the last two years,” says Natalie Lee, product manager for Africa and Middle East, SITA World Tours. Goway, too, says they are happy with sales to both destinations. “We’ve seen double-digit growth year over year for both destinations,” says Moira Smith, the operator’s general manager for Africa and Middle East who recently traveled to both countries. Over at General Tours World Traveler, Bob Drumm, president, points out that the operator’s business to Israel has “doubled this year over last,” adding that “it’s heartbreaking to see what’s happening in the Middle East, so much is under stress over there, but I think people see Israel as a little more of a beacon.”
That said, Drumm does point out that Jordan, because it neighbors Syria, is not faring as well in their books. Although he does say that the adventurous traveler is actually seeking it out. “I would say the Jordanian traveler is more worldly in terms of their travel experience; interested in seeing what’s happening there.”
And what all tour operators agree on and stress is that clients should not miss out, because of unwarranted fear, on taking a tour to the lands of the Bible. “There is just so much,” points out Goway’s Smith. “Historically, biblically, culturally and scenically. Then there is the food, the activities, something for everyone.”
“Listen,” says Haim Gutin, Israel Tourism Commissioner, Israel Ministry of Tourism, North & South America, “I don’t think tour operators would put a life in jeopardy by recommending a destination that isn’t safe. You have to be there in order to see for yourself how safe it is. I can say that you can walk in the streets of Israel, in any city at any time of the day and feel very, very safe. That doesn’t happen in NY at night; in Chicago at night; or in LA at night.” And Gutin notes that Israel, the destination, is in fact, only 4 percent down in visitors compared to last year at the same time. “Despite the economic situation, the Arab Spring, the Iran issue, the Syria issue, I think we are doing very well.”
What’s also allowing Israel and Jordan to do well is the fact that tour operators are adding, expanding and working with both destinations to create innovative packages that are ideal for all clients, from first-timers and adventurous types to those who want to embrace religion, as well as go on a family vacation and just breathe in what only these “Holy Lands” can offer.
General Tours World Traveler, which does 90 percent of its business through travel agents, is all about keeping it small and offering one-on-one focus. “All of our groups operate with 16 or less passengers. It means we can bring very focused attention to our guests. We can stay at smaller hotels that larger groups can’t stay at and which are off-the-beaten path,” Drumm says. He points to the Shalom Hotel & Relax in Tel Aviv, which he describes as a sophisticated beach house overlooking the Mediterranean. He also says the company offers a range of travel styles, including Freestyle, which are shorter journeys and city stays, as well as private tours. In fact, during our conversation, Drumm pointed to one couple that was traveling to Jordan for 10 days, which he says is quite a long trip to the destination. Just for the two of them, the company set them up with two nights in Petra, “then they are going to Wadi Rum, and are actually going to overnight there in a tent. They are going to spend the day with national guards who preserve and protect the historical sites in the region. They are doing a food thing in Amman.” Those are the types of travelers, he notes, that the tour operator is sending to Jordan this year. “They are a little bit different than those going to Israel.”
Drumm suggests first-timers to the region should get their feet wet with a trip to Israel. “Even if you are not a particularly religious person, you know a lot of what happened there and it becomes real. I think Jordan is more of an acquired taste.”
Package it: When asked which is one of the operator’s more unique trips to Israel and/or Jordan, Drumm immediately points to the 8-day Ancient Pathways to Petra (rates start at $1,999 pp dbl, land-only). The itinerary includes all the best-known sites of antiquity, as well as lesser-known places like Pella and Gadara. Highlights include a visit to an urban art gallery; experiencing culinary traditions at Tawaheen Al-Hawa restaurant, a local favorite in Amman; taking a slow-paced tour of Petra; and exploring the desert landscapes of Wadi Rum by 4×4. The Pay-in-Full 2013 discount saves couples $600 ($300 pp) on any 2013 Small Group or Private Tours journey when they pay in full at time of booking by Aug. 30.
Why should agents book with General Tours: “Our heritage, our longevity—we are 66 years old this year—our quality,” Drumm says. Additionally, agents get a bonus of $100 per booking if they sign up for the General Tours Rewards program.
For 2013, IsramWorld, whose product, the company states, sets the industry standard and which Neomie Menahem, v.p., operations and reservations, Eastern Mediterranean, IsramWorld, says offers clients the flexibility of starting their tour any day of the week, unveiled Israel… The Second Time Around package, which as the name suggests is for “second-timers” to Israel and is in the comfort of a private car and guide. “Most people will say that they would like to see Israel at least once in their lifetime,” says Menahem. “The reason being that it is the Land of the Bible. Whether one is religious or not, to many of us in the Western Hemisphere, it is here that it all began and the first-timer, on a 7- or 10-night stay in Israel, can only tour the most important cities. So we have created a second-timers tour. Israel has so much to offer—the Negev Desert, Mitzpe Ramon, Eilat. There are activities that on a bus tour, our clients may not have the opportunity to experience—Jeep safari, rappelling, visits to vineyards, culinary experiences, helicopter rides over Masada or Tel Aviv. We needed to create a tour for those who have visited all the biblical and historical sites but want to enjoy this exciting, modern country and all it has to offer,” she says. And Menahem stresses that if the client only has six or seven nights to vacation, then she recommends a 1-country tour to enjoy it to the fullest. “To appreciate both countries, one would need at least 10 to 13 nights. It is so easy to travel between the two countries, it would be a pity not to take advantage of their proximity and to learn the history of the area.”
Package it: The 11-day Israel… The Second Time Around itinerary, with stops in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Mitzpe Ramon, includes such highlights as six days of touring with private car; “Night Spectacular” Sound & Light Show at the Citadel Museum during the first night in Jerusalem; a ride on a Segway through the Jerusalem promenades; a home-cooked meal with a local family in Jerusalem; a visit to Gush Etzion for a choice of unique “surprise activities” and wine tasting; a Jerusalem “Rooftop” Discovery tour; Jeep riding in the Negev; and a spa treatment at the Beresheet Resort. Rates for two passengers in a 4-seater car, May 21 through Aug. 20, start at $5,750.
Why should agents book with IsramWorld: “Our tours are guaranteed and agents never have to worry that the tour may cancel,” says Menahem. “It is our product, an Isram product and we have known the likes and preferences of the American traveler for over 45 years. We know the level of service our clients expect. There are no surprises.”
Although Intrepid Vacations has offered tours to Israel in the past, this year’s new offerings are more in-depth programs with unique experiences as well as activities and tours into the religious, historical and modern sides of Israel. The new itineraries were created for those seeking a faith-based tour that Brian John, the company’s president and CEO, says offers clients a “vast array of experiences based on their faith and we tailor their trip, incorporating opportunities of interest to them that they would not find on any other trip.” The company points out that they have seen a steady growth of interest in faith-based tours, because “people are grasping for faith to help them persevere in these times. Many are reaching out to us and are looking to travel to holy sites to better understand and strengthen their faith. A journey to Israel brings solace and peace to pilgrims as well as a better understanding of the beginnings of their religion.” Beyond visiting the religious sites, however, participants on the tours enjoy Bedouin activities in Negev, have the opportunity
to view the Ramon Crater, go biking, take walking tours, and
go camel riding. “With our insight into the destination,
imagination and knowledge, we can customize any group
or tour,” says John.
Package it: The operator is offering a handful of new tours, including the 8-day Israel Pilgrims Tour, from $1,475 land-only, with four nights in Jerusalem, two nights in Galilee, and one night in Tel Aviv. Travelers will view the Dead Sea Scrolls and visit Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum as well as Bethlehem’s Manger Square and the Church of the Nativity, and then explore the Dead Sea, Jericho, Nazareth, and the shores of the Sea of Galilee.
The 10-day Jewish Heritage tour, meanwhile, starting at $1,722 land-only, is two nights in Tel Aviv, two nights in Galilee, and five nights in Jerusalem. This Jewish faith-based tour starts off in Tel Aviv, where travelers will tour the aqueducts and amphitheater in the port city of Caesarea. Highlights include exploring the source of the Jordan River, adventuring by jeep to discover Golan Heights, traveling down the fertile Jordan Valley, experiencing a blessing at the top of Mount Scopus overlooking Jerusalem, and meeting with a Kibbutz member to learn about their unique lifestyle.
Why should agents book with Intrepid Vacations: “Intrepid Vacations,” says John, “offers unique tours that provide travelers with the added benefits of not only visiting famed ‘travel sites’ but also of truly living the diverse cultures, tasting the distinctive flavors, and walking in the actual footsteps of historical figures as meticulously planned by our Israel destination experts.”
SITA World Tours makes it a point to not offer combined tours to Israel and Jordan because, says Lee, the operator’s product manager for Africa and Middle East, “we find that travelers are often looking for only one or the other, or often add on Jordan as an extension on the tours we offer in Africa.” That said, they do offer a 4-day Petra Express itinerary that was designed in mind as an add-on to the Treasures of Israel program or any other tour they offer. Also, she adds, “a stay in Aqaba or Eilat is a great stopover point to relax and enjoy the beaches before continuing overland into the other country.”
In whichever destination the traveler chooses to spend their vacation, SITA offers a culturally immersive itinerary. “The cultural heritage is a strong draw for many travelers,” she says, and so in Israel, for example, “we touch on the cultural highlights of the country and are not geared toward faith-based travels.” Which makes it an ideal choice for its target clientele to these destinations, which tend to be in the 40 to 65 age bracket.
Package it: To that end, one of the company’s most unique tours is its 6-day Jewels of Jordan package, in which “we not only touch the highlights of Petra and the Kings Highway, but also include visits to Jerash and Ajloun on a day tour from Amman. The tour also includes a not-to-be-missed 4WD desert safari in Wadi Rum.” Another special highlight is a visit to the Temples of Zeus, the mile-long Street of Columns, Cardo Maximus, and the colonnaded streets, theaters, baths and over 17 churches that were found in Jerash. Rates start at
$1,780 dbl land-only.
Why should agents book with SITA: “In addition to our brochure tours,” says Lee, “SITA specializes in customized travel and can tailor the tour to accommodate the traveler’s interests and budget. SITA is also a USTOA tour operator and celebrating 80 years of experience in travel.”
two in one
“Jordan and Israel combine so beautifully,” says Goway’s Smith. “It is easy to fly into one and out of the other with a road transfer between the two.” She adds that if the client has at least 12 days or more, then a combination of the two countries makes perfect sense. In terms of new offerings, Smith says that after her trip there last month, “we have so many ideas for wonderful new products,” so the operator will be launching new trips to both destinations in September with the new Africa and Middle East brochure. “One really special offering will be our Ancient Civilizations tour, which is a combination of Istanbul, Israel and Jordan and will be fully escorted from North America.” According to Smith, Israel and Jordan are two destinations that should not be missed because although one expects incredible historic sites in Israel, “one doesn’t expect the incredible food and wine. Also there are fantastic restaurants and Tel Aviv is really cosmopolitan and vibrant. In Jordan, the hotels are exceptional and significantly better priced than comparable hotels elsewhere. Jordan offers an incredible value.”
Package it: For clients who want to combine both countries, recommend as a first stop the 4-day Cosmopolitan Tel Aviv where clients can truly enjoy the city at a relaxing pace, even spending time on the beach. Combine that with the 6-day Soul Searcher in Jordan, which arrives in Amman where clients have plenty of time at leisure, then continues on to Madaba, known as the city of mosaics for the famous mosaic map flooring the Greek Orthodox Church of St. George, the oldest map in the world depicting the Holy Land. Then it’s on to Mount Nebo and Petra, and explorations of the Desert Castles. Both are private tours and can be customized, so call for rates.
Smith also points out a unique product that’s part of the operator’s Stays of Distinction offerings—Feynan Eco-Lodge in Jordan. It’s located in the pristine Dana Biosphere Reserve, and is a first for eco-tourism in Jordan. It’s owned by the Royal Society for the Conservation of Nature (RSCN) and operated by EcoHotels, and integrates conservation and socio-economic development while promoting the importance of the natural environment.
Why should agents book with Goway: “Goway takes the scary out of selling the Middle East,” says Smith. “Our staff are experts and will seamlessly assist agents and their clients to the point that we are happy to do a combined conference call with the agent and their clients. Our agents are extremely important to us and we have a Goway Special Agents program that is all about educating agents, offering them marketing tools to assist in selling to their clients and of course preferential commission rates.”
Portrait of Israel
In our April Issue, we put together a visual feast that showcases the best Israel has to offer—from hip boutique hotels to its cool architecture and green offerings, not to mention its culinary and wine scene and spa delights.
Visit recommend.com and look for the digital version of the April issue under “magazine” and “issue archive” on the top banner.
As a leader in the airline industry offering the largest number of flights from the U.S. to Israel, it is no wonder El Al Israel Airlines is thinking of increasing its gateway hubs in the U.S.
According to Danny Saadon, vice president of El Al for North and Central America, the airline could possibly include Chicago (ORD) or Miami (MIA) to its nonstop flight options to Israel next year. The airline currently offers three flights from the East Coast (New York’s JFK and Newark) and daily flights from Los Angeles (LAX), as well as three flights a week from Toronto (YYZ); flights from Toronto increase up to five per week during the peak summer months when travel increases to the Holy Land, in July and August.
Not only is El Al making it easier for North Americans to visit Israel, but while on the long-haul flight your clients can sit in comfort with the airline’s recently introduced Economy Plus seating.
About 30 to 40 seats within the Economy Class seating (normally the first few rows, depending on the aircraft) now provide more seat recline; a comfort kit with eyeshades, socks, earplugs, toothpaste and a toothbrush; a business class pillow and blanket; a wider seat cushion; a foot rest; and a curtain for added privacy.
“For long-haul flights, it’s very significant to have this new feature,” adds Saadon. “When you fly a short haul of one or two hours there is no need, but when you’re flying for 11 hours, it makes life much easier.” Frequent flyers in the Platinum and Gold categories can opt for the Economy Plus seats at no extra charge; cost for travelers is an additional $150. Visit elal.co.il for more information.
General Tours World Traveler: (800) 221-2216; generaltours.com or generaltours.com/Rewards/Login.aspx (travel agent login)
Goway: (800) 245-0920; goway.com or gowayagent.com
Intrepid Vacations: (800) 505-5497; intrepid-vacations.com
Israel Ministry of Tourism: goisrael.com
IsramWorld: (800) 223-7460; isram.com
Jordan Tourism Board: visitjordan.com
SITA World Tours: (800) 421-5643; sitatours.com or sitatours.com/AgentServices/index.php