Israel Tour Ops Respond to Demand for Custom Experiences

by Stacey Zable
Israel Tour Ops Respond to Demand for Custom Experiences

Citing robust demand for customized experiences and family travel, tour operators in the Israel market are launching new products at a wide range of price points.

Israel’s escorted and FIT tour products fall into two broad categories – religious and secular. Tour operators emphasize that both deliver profound travel experiences.

“Israel is one of those ‘once-in-a-lifetime” destinations,” said Mike Shields, managing director of groups and emerging markets for the Globus family of brands. “Many travelers return home saying they had a ‘life-changing’ experience.”

Globus offers both religious and secular tours. The best-selling Israel programs, according to Shields, range from nine to 12 days and feature the must-see cities and holy places, such as Galilee, Nazareth, Tel Aviv, Bethlehem, Jerusalem and the Dead Sea.

Tours for every budget
Escorted tours and FITs to Israel are available for every budget, and new products for 2013 focus on both high-end and budget options.

On the deluxe end, Travcoa recently launched an “Over the Top” series that exceeds its already high-level product, according to Justin Smith, product manager of the company’s Middle East programs.

“These go to the next level in terms of accommodations, meals, sightseeing, but also provide more in-depth experiences,” Smith said.

Examples of in-depth experiences include trips into the Negev Desert; spending time with Kabala educators and clergy, and meeting with Americans who have moved to Israel to learn what life is like for them there.

Travcoa also expanded its Mystic Israel program from 10 to 14 days, adding numerous new tour components.

At the other end of the market, Globus' value-focused brand, Cosmos, which has long offered customized tours, is introducing its first brochure featuring “budget-friendly” religious itineraries.

“The price point is very attractive, and economic factors are still of primary concern to many people,” said Shields.

Growth in customized tours
Customized tours are growing in popularity for Globus, Travcoa and Ya’lla Tours USA. It’s in keeping with the trend for travelers looking for value, according to Ronen Paldi, president of Ya’lla Tours.

“A private FIT costs more than a bus tour, but [passengers] are getting more for their buck,” he said. “They control the time and allow us to customize the program to their liking.”

Also promoting value, Sarai Tours introduced new city packages for fall and early winter. The packages offer hotel stays in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, transfers and one-day tours, said Joyce Schoonenberg Reed, owner/manager of Sarai Tours.

Hungry for experiences
The upscale traveler seeking custom-tailored experiences is a strong market for Israel, according to Paldi.

“These people may choose to stay in three- or four-star hotels and spend their money on private touring and activities like wine tasting, food tasting, rappelling, kayaking and jeep riding,” he said.

At Sarai Tours, upscale clients still want five-star hotels and private cars, but increasingly it is middle class families who are opting for private tours that provide rich experiences.

“They are putting their money into private guides and drivers to do the program they want. They are spending more on content and less on accommodations,” Reed said.

Family market strong
The family market is growing for Sarai Tours, with Bar/Bat Mitzvah trips especially strong.

“The Bar/Bat Mitzvah trip is recession-proof,” Reed said. “A child’s Bar Mitzvah is only once in their lifetime, and families save up money for them. Even in the hardest times, people make it a priority and go on these trips.”

At Travcoa, the majority of Israel travelers are couples, but families are also a growth market for the company, especially for customized journeys, said Smith. He noted that Israel has numerous active family activities, such as zip lining, archaeological digs and river rafting.

Christian Pilgrimages are also a big market. “It’s almost a virgin territory with so much that can be done for both FIT and escorted tours,” said Paldi.

Tour sales strong
Tour operators say sales are strong and they are optimistic about future business to Israel, largely due to pent-up demand.

“These programs are hot because many religious organizations and churches ‘sat on the fence’ in 2011 and 2012, primarily due to economic factors as well as the various geopolitical factors that have been in the news in the Middle East the last couple of years,” said Shields.

“In the past two years, we have faced an uncertain economy, but what hasn't changed is the market potential of Israel.”

Also optimistic is Larry Ritter, CEO of Israel Tour Connection. “More and more people are ticking off their bucket lists – Israel is on most lists, and now is the time,” he said.

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