July 25, 2024

Adventure Destinations League

Navigating Travel Wonders

Travel executives visit Israel with a goal to ‘inspire and educate’: Travel Weekly

For Alex Sharpe, a three-day swing through Israel last month was not a political statement.

Rather, the CEO of Signature Travel Network organized a small group to fly to Tel Aviv on May 19 to meet with members of the travel industry there on what he called a simple mission: show support for Israel, their longtime partner in travel, as a tourist destination and to demystify what is being said about traveling there now.

“Our role will always be to both inspire and educate customers,” he said. “Social media, media in general and others’ misconceptions can cloud perceptions and realities. Our job is not to convince someone to go, but to educate them on the realities.”

The group, which included Bryan Leibman, CEO of Frosch, also wanted to get a sense of when tourism can return in earnest. With only 64 hours on the ground, they met with hotel managers and tour operators. They visited newly opened tourist sites, including the recently excavated Pilgrimage Road dating to ancient Jerusalem and the new home of the National Library, which Sharpe called “absolutely incredible.”

They also hit some of the better-known spots, including Jerusalem’s Old City, the Galilee region, the Golan Heights and Tel Aviv.

“The welcome by everyone we encountered was incredibly positive and warm,” Sharpe said. “The fact that we were there meant everything to the drivers, bellmen, guides, hotel staff and even casual interactions on the streets or in cafes.”

The Magdala Center in Galilee, home to the ruins of a synagogue dating from the first century and considered the birthplace of Mary Magdalene.

The Magdala Center in Galilee, home to the ruins of a synagogue dating from the first century and considered the birthplace of Mary Magdalene. Photo Credit: Travex

The group found the Old City less busy than usual, which they saw as a potential selling point. “From a tourist perspective, it’s an incredible time to go,” Leibman said. “Being able to go places when they aren’t busy, with no crowds or lines, is a special opportunity. We went into the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and there was literally no wait. Normally, there are two-hour lines.”

Tel Aviv, however, was as bustling as ever. “Everything is open, and life has largely returned to normal, at least superficially,” Sharpe said. 

In search of destination ambassadors

Sharpe and Leibman both said that in order for Israel tourism to really bounce back, airlift needs to be restored. Delta resumed flights from New York on June 7, while United resumed daily flights from Newark on June 6.

El Al, Israel’s national carrier, never canceled its direct flights from the U.S. to Tel Aviv and is operating at very high capacity, both Sharpe and Leibman said. Israel has long been a top-selling destination for Frosch, and Leibman said that Christian affinity groups are already returning “with a high degree of frequency.”

The National Library of Israel in Jerusalem.

The National Library of Israel in Jerusalem. Photo Credit: Travex

Another issue Sharpe identified is travel insurance coverage, which he called incomplete but better than what he expected. He added that Signature’s preferred insurance suppliers “understand that they need to be flexible with advisors and their customers.”

Finally, Sharpe said, “we need to create ambassadors.”

“I have always felt that a destination like Israel is best sold by advisors who have visited and can explain what to expect from a firsthand account,” Sharpe said. “And I think some customers will want to work with someone who has been there recently. It is certainly reassuring when you can say ‘I was there last month and … .'”

Sharpe said advisors should consider visiting later this summer or fall and is hopeful that Signature will be able to support educational trips for advisors later this year. “I know our partners will be very supportive,” he said. 

Leibman felt the same — and had wanted to be one of those ambassadors with firsthand experience.

“We’re leaders in the industry, and we lead by example,” he said. “We felt it was very important to support the industry in Israel — our DMC partners, our guides, our hotel partners — to be there for them. We take seriously that part of our responsibility in the industry to lead and support those places.” 

Sharpe and Leibman both compared their visit to their going to Maui last fall, in the early days after the wildfires, and to other destinations following strife, such as Paris after its worst terror attacks.

“I block the politics and think about what I can learn and how I, and others, can grow from an experience,” Sharpe said.

Pilgrimage Road excavations in Jerusalem's City of David National Park.

Pilgrimage Road excavations in Jerusalem’s City of David National Park. Photo Credit: Travex

Leibman said it is important that travel advisors and their clients know that Israel feels safe.

“It’s a fantastic time to go. Everything is open, and [visitors may] feel safer even than they do at home,” said Leibman, who brought his son on the trip. “I felt comfortable to go with my family. We did not feel unsafe ever.”

Sharpe recommends that advisors encourage groups they have booked in late 2024 and into 2025 not to cancel. But trying to heavily promote Israel right now might not make sense, he said, “unless you want to drown in political conversation and risk alienating customers.” 

But for advisors who know their clients and understand their risk tolerance, “there are opportunities,” he said.

Taking in the new and the familiar in Israel