Israel gearing up to receive more Chinese tourists

China and Israel recently announced that mutual 10-year multiple-entry visas would be issued to their citizens in the future for travel related to business and tourism.

Among a raft of cooperation agreements signed during talks in Jerusalem between Vice-Premier Liu Yandong and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in March, the new visa arrangement makes China the first country with which Israel has entered into such an understanding.

Efrat Perri, a spokeswoman for the Israeli embassy in Beijing, says it could take up to a few months before Chinese can apply for the long-term visas.

A timeline for implemention of the agreement has yet to announced.

Even so, for some like 30-year-old Li Wenqi, the move is significant.

"Israel's long history and picturesque views make for more than just one visit," Li, who works for a Shanghai-based web company, tells China Daily over the phone.

He first visited Israel in 2014, taking a 10-day tour that cost nearly 20,000 yuan ($3,086), with a trip to Jordan thrown in. Traveling in a group, he and other Chinese were interested in seeing sites related to Christianity.

Israelis are hospitable to Chinese also because Shanghai had sheltered many Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi-occupied Europe during World War II, says Li.

The new visa policy is part of Israel's efforts to make visa application procedures simpler since it started granting individual tourism visas to Chinese applicants in 2013, says Perri.

Israel and China began to waive visas for holders of diplomatic and service passports in January.

Israel's Ministry of Tourism says the number of Chinese visitors to Israel has risen by more than 30 percent year-on-year over the past three years. Last year, more than 47,000 Chinese traveled to Israel, marking a 43 percent rise over 2014. Israel estimates that the number will reach 68,000 this year.

Israeli tourism officials are making efforts to promote their country as a destination for Chinese tourists this year, with the aim of achieving an annual average of 100,000 Chinese visitors in the next few years.

China on its part has announced the first direct flight from the mainland to Israel by Hainan Airlines, three times a week, effective from April 28. It takes more than 11 hours by a nonstop flight from Beijing to Tel Aviv.

EL AL Israel Airlines has three direct flights from Beijing to Tel Aviv and six from Hong Kong to Tel Aviv every week.

"I'm excited about the new flights and hope there will be more (in the future) for the convenience of Chinese travelers," Perri says.

Bora Shnitman, director of the Israeli government's tourism office in Beijing, says some hotels in Israel are inviting Chinese chefs to train local staff so as to cater to Chinese tastes and also plan to offer Chinese TV channels.

Although Chinese tend to travel in groups to Israel, there are some young independent travelers as well. Young Chinese like new experiences, such as ecotourism, Shnitman says.

Lulu Kedmi, 43, a tour guide for Chinese visiting Israel for more than a decade, echoes Shnitman.

"As Chinese understand more about Israel and with the upcoming 10-year visa, I think there will be more individual tourists from China," she tells China Daily over phone.

Kedmi, who was born in China and is married to an Israeli, says some scenic spots in Israel have introduced Chinese subtitles in their promotional videos, and local tour guides are being trained to serve Chinese visitors.

She says that there are about 40 tour guides in Israel who speak Mandarin and several can also speak Cantonese.

Some are of Chinese origin like her and are trained to understand all aspects of Israel, ranging from geography to culture.

Up to 80 percent of the tourist groups she guides are Chinese who visit Israel on pilgrimages. There are also visitors who attend business seminars on topics like Israel's irrigation and sewage systems.

Kedmi says some Chinese worry if Israel is safe to visit, given existing tensions in the region.

"But when a guest returns to China, his or her good comment about Israel is the best promotion."

CHINA NATIONAL TOURIST OFFICE(LONDON UK, Ireland & Nordic Countries)

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