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by Rhonda J. Prepes, P. Eng. August 19, 2010

Oded Grofman has been blazing trails at the Israel Government Tourist Office in Canada (IGTO) ever since taking over in September 2007. Grofman, who serves as the Consul for Tourism and Director General for Canada, IGTO was recently in Winnipeg for Folklorama promoting travel to Israel across Canada.

"Visiting Israel is a life changing experience," Grofman says."Tel Aviv was just chosen as one of the top ten cities by the sea (by Conde  Naste Traveller Magazine] – great beaches, great nightlife, and great restaurants. The demand for travel to Israel is growing all the time. Today all the big travel companies in Canada have packages to Israel because they see this demand. There was a 27% increase in travel to Israel from July 2009 to July 2010 and a 26% increase over the past 7 months,” he says

Grofman  recalls that  when he when he first started in his position, " We had to build a campaign, make tour kits, recruit a public relations company, etc. We started by trying to establish a good presence in the Ontario market which is 70% of our business. Quebec was the second most important market for us. We are starting to be established in Western Canada and this visit to Winnipeg has helped with that.Our activities and presence now reaches from coast to coast.”

According to  Grofman  30-35% of  travellers  from Canada to Israel are repeat customers.

"They come to Israel and feel that it is secure, affordable and transforming and they want to do it again. People really fall in love with the country. Our goal now is to increase tourist rates, especially from Canada.” 

Some 73,000 Canadians visited Israel in 2008, a record year, but that number declined in 2009 to 62,000, owing largely to the global economic downturn. Israel may set a new record for tourism in 2010, with 3.2 million visitors expected, including about 80,000 Canadians.

Grofman stresses the  importance of the tourism industry in Israel.

"Tourism is important not just for the economy of the state, but for the employment of the people. Tourism benefits the entire state of Israel, not only the large cities. The government invests a lot in tourism - they invest in infrastructure and hotels, they build attractions, and they develop holy and historical sites,”

Grofman says  that  there are some misconceptions about Israel.

"The most problematic one concerns safety. We try to reassure people. We tell them we will have about 80,000 Canadian tourists in Israel this year alone. These are record numbers. There are also more and more companies that are selling Israel as well. Air Canada now has a daily direct flight to Israel from Pearson Airport in Toronto. El Al has increased the number of flights to Israel. Other American and European carriers have also followed suit increasing flights to Israel.”

Grofman adds, “I truly believe that Israel is a safe destination. We hardly have any incidents. There are some conflicts, so tourists shouldn’t go to where there are conflicts, that’s for sure. Uncertainty is not something that is just in Israel, it is a global problem these days.”

Grofman notes that his office likes " to bring journalists and other groups to Israel and have them report about their experiences in Israel. That it is a normal vacation destination - safe, technologically advanced, and fun.”

He says that more than 50% of visitors to Israel are not Jewish.

"We work in the Catholic market and the Evangelical market to promote travel to Israel. In the past visitors have come to Israel for cultural, religious, and historical reasons. Now, we are building unique package tours: adventure tours, food and wine tours, spa tours, Royal Winnipeg Ballet performances in Israel, the Royal Ontario Museum donors following an archeological dig, and the Design Exchange in Toronto Mission to Israel.”

According to Grofman.  another challenge "to overcome is budget because we are competing with other tourism markets which may be closer than a 15 hour plane ride away from Winnipeg. The flight may be long and a little expensive and then hotels add more to the total travel budget. We suggest that visitors come off season when air fares are lower and stay in 3 or 4 star hotels instead of a 5 star one. This can make a huge difference in the total cost.”

“The potential to increase travel from Canada to Israel is great because the recession did not hit Canada as hard as it hit the U.S. The Canadian dollar is a lot stronger, almost at par with the American dollar. This makes it more affordable for the Canadian traveler to go to Israel.”

Grofman notes that the largest number of tourists to Israel come from North America.

"750, 000 tourists come from North America - 90% from the U.S. and 10% from Canada. After that, it is Russia. Middle class Russians from Moscow and St. Petersburg are coming to vacation in Tel Aviv or Eilat. We are getting more and more visitors from Russia, Ukraine, Poland, China, Korea, and Singapore. The potential for growth from these countries is huge. We also have a good number of tourists from France, England, and Germany.”

While in Winnipeg, Grofman visited with representatives of Jewish organizations like The Asper Foundation, The Jewish Federation, The Jewish National Fund, Rabbi Alan Green and other leaders of the Jewish community.

“Everyone was so kind, so inspired and so helpful. I also visited with representatives of the Calvary Temple, Christian Week magazine, Continental Travel and Sarbit Travel. We gave them travel tour kits with a Christian perspective. Israel is a trip that many Christian people dream of taking all their lives.”

Grofman first came to Winnipeg in May around the time of the community wide Yom Ha’aztmaut festivities at the Rady JCC.

"At that time, I was asked if the Ministry of Tourism would be interested in providing sponsorship for Folklorama.  I saw what had been done for Yom Ha’atzmaut and I was very impressed. I felt that the Jews in Winnipeg were doing so much for Israel that I said that we would be happy to give something back in the form of money, pictures, displays, and brochures.

“I returned now in August to partake in Folklorama. I was so impressed with what I experienced first-hand at the Israel Pavilion that I have already committed to sponsorship for Yom Ha’atzmaut next year and hopefully to the Israel Pavilion again.”

“I believe that during Folklorama, thousands of people will come through the Israel Pavilion and learn about Israel and see pictures of the sites of Israel. For some of these people, it will motivate them to actually travel to Israel.”

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