Israel has always been a popular travel destination. But in recent years, the country’s Ministry of Tourism has evolved its marketing message to appeal to a broader swath of travelers.
In addition to promoting the country’s famous religious sites like the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and Dome of the Rock, Israel's “Vacation Beyond Belief” campaign highlights the country’s food, nature and cultural experiences.
Attractions like HaBsor National Park and The Negev Museum of Art are promoted alongside the Western Wall and Tower of David. “We wanted to acknowledge that people have multiple motivations when planning a trip,” said Eyal Carlin, the Israel Ministry of Tourism's Tourism Commissioner for North America. “We’re trying to exhibit Israel as the diverse destination that it is. Everybody can find something here.”
Internal investments. External wins.
Since launching the “Vacation Beyond Belief” campaign in 2016 the Ministry has shifted its advertising focus and invested more in its tourism infrastructure.
Rather than only running promotions on faith-based media, the Ministry created advertising relationships with networks like ESPN and Bravo and news channels including CNN and Fox News. There’s also been a heavy internal focus on public relations, with a steady stream of positive stories being promoted on social media and traditional new outlets.
The efforts have paid off. Recently, Israel was hailed as a top travel destination by publications including Forbes and Travel + Leisure, Carlin said.
In its widely read “52 Places to Go” list, The New York Times listed Israel's Caesarea as a top destination for 2020. The Mediterranean coastal town was hailed as “one of the world’s most impressive archaeological complexes.” The article referred to it as “Pompeii by the beach.” In its 2019 roundup of top places to visit, the Times highlighted Eilat as a must-see destination, calling it a “Red Sea paradise.”
In addition to promoting its image abroad, the Ministry has also invested in infrastructure improvements, including opening new offices in Shanghai, Mumbai and Warsaw. The Ministry is also working with local providers, attractions and hotels to help them create, promote and deliver more traveler-friendly programs.
All of the promotions, stories and investments were buoyed by Israel's Open Skies Agreement with the European Union. Before it was ratified in 2013, European travelers could only reach Israel from first-tier cities like Paris and Frankfurt.
Now, almost every major and medium city on the continent has a direct connection to Israel, said Carlin. Even better, many are low-cost flights, he said, with most coming in at about 150 euros round trip. Direct flights from America have also increased in recent years. “Six years ago, we had direct flights from New York and Los Angeles,” said Carlin. “Now we have nonstop flights from Boston; New York; Washington, D.C.; Miami; San Francisco and Las Vegas. In 2020, we're also getting nonstop flights from Chicago and Dallas.” To bring in more connections, the country is also offering a marketing incentive program for airlines that establish nonstop flights from unserved cities.
While most of the investments and strategic relationships have paid off, the Ministry has had to overcome a few hurdles over the campaign’s history. There was that one major agreement with the Thomas Cook Group set to take place just before the iconic travel company filed for bankruptcy in 2019.
“We've been experimenting with a lot of types of agreements with different companies,” said Carlin. “Some were very successful, some were not.” But the successful ones have more than paid off.
Visitors from the United States have increased by 26% over the past two years, according to the Ministry. Israel has also seen a 21% growth in Canadian visitors. The country is also hoping to bring more business travelers and events to Israel. In the past five years, Israel has hosted several major events including the Global Congress of Empowered21, a major Christian conference, and Giro d'Italia, an annual multiple-stage bicycle race.
In 2019, the country welcomed more than 6,000 guests for an insurance industry incentive trip. For the gala event, the city of Jerusalem created a wooden stage that covered the Valley of Hinnom. “It was unbelievable,” said Carlin.
One of the factors beyond the control of the country’s Ministry of Tourism is geopolitics. Every time nearby countries like Iraq or Syria are in the news, the Ministry has to appease travelers’ concerns about safety. In general, though, geopolitics are affecting the country’s marketing messages less and less, said Carlin. Now, they’re dealing with factors that are potentially more within their control.
“Before, the first question travelers asked was, ‘Is Israel safe?’” he said. “Now, they want to know why hotel rooms are so expensive.”