Israel, for several years now, has promoted the fact that, as a tourism destination, there’s a lot to see beyond its many holy sites.
Not that there’s anything wrong with epic and iconic must-sees like the Western Wall, the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque.
There’s a reason why the Middle Eastern country on the Mediterranean Sea, with a diverse population of Jews, Christians and Muslims, is widely known as a faith-based destination.
But within this small and accessible country, which is about the size of Lake Ontario, lies great potential for leisure and luxury travel, and even MICE markets, regardless of one’s faith.
In Israel, there’s a range of activities one can unlock. You could be skiing in Mount Hermon, Israel's only ski resort in the north, one day and then riding a camel in the desert, three hours south, the next.
For Canadian travel advisors, it’s one thing to offer clients an itinerary through the Land of Creation.
But it takes a reliable partner, on the supplier side, to make it happen so that each trip can reach its full potential and level of authenticity.
The local connection
Enter Kenes Tours, a Tel Aviv-based travel and tourism company – founded in 1965 – that creates customized, private tours for families, friends and organizational groups.
The company’s promise, essentially, is to map out a “blueprint” for each itinerary it creates that caters to individual interests, with an eye for building a truly unique experience.
From landmarks to culinary, wellness and outdoor adventures to niche interests: “We work hand in hand with partners that we've cultivated relationships with over many, many years, at every level of Israeli business,” said Benny Scholder, director of sales for North America at Kenes Tours, which works primarily in the B2B space, with travel advisors.
Scholder was in Toronto on Tuesday (June 6), alongside Kenes Tours President Yoav Bruck, to meet with Gal Hana, consul tourism director for Canada at the Israel Ministry of Tourism (IMOT), and trade media, at the ministry’s downtown office.
One key differentiator with Kenes Tours, a destination management company (DMC), is that it has on-site coordinators – a “personal concierge that's able to travel with our groups,” Scholder explained.
“In Israel, that's especially important,” he said. “It builds a bridge, culturally speaking, between our clientele and the situations they encounter.”
Kenes Tours is rooted in Israel, with staff on the ground, but its leadership team lives in the United States, close to its main market – this being North America, where 80 per cent of its clientele is based.
Most clients are from the U.S., but Kenes Tours, which joined Virtuoso in 2011, now has its sights set on building business with that friendly neighbour north of the U.S. border: Canada.
Not just as secondary branch of the U.S., but as a main market for inbound travel to Israel.
There are many destinations, like New York City or London, where you can have a fulfilling experience with or without a DMC, Mr. Bruck explained.
But with Israel, having a local DMC to unearth added value is “crucial,” he said. “Especially for Canadians.”
Sure, tourists can Google or ChatGPT an itinerary in Israel that may include stops at popular sites like the Dead Sea.
“But when you go in-depth, a typical client will get to a point where they get lost. They’ll find kind of what they want to do, but they won’t be able to connect the dots,” Bruck said.
Bruck noted motorcycle tours as an example – Kenes Tours owns 50 Yamaha motor bikes and is therefore set up for epic road adventures in Israel.
“You can go to Israel and do a bike tour, but you’ll have to be very creative to do it on your own,” Bruck said. “Or you can come to us. We have a line of high-end products, that are vetted by the best professionals.”
High levels of standards, combined with tours that feature a mix of history, culinary and active/outdoor highlights, is something Kenes Tours feels Canadians can appreciate, he said.
“We truly believe this is a very important market for us.”
“The demand is there”
The numbers speak for themselves.
Gal Hana at the IMOT said that in April, Israel saw five per cent more Canadians than it did in 2019. And that’s with 40 per cent less flights. (El Al, last year, pulled its route out of Toronto).
“The demand is there. People want to travel to Israel,” Hana said.
After all, when visiting compact Israel, you can cram a lot into one trip.
“You can start your day in Jerusalem and finish in Tel Aviv, or you can go from Tel Aviv to the Dead Sea…you only need to travel five to 10 hours to explore,” Hana noted.
And because it's a long-haul destination, visitors “really need someone to make sure they get all the benefits of coming to not only the Holy Land, but to the Start-Up Nation.”
“Beyond the obvious”
Israel, notably, is one of the most startup-dense countries in the world, and this also plays into Kenes Tours’ customized itineraries – no two of which are identical.
For example: if a client is interested in learning more about biotechnology, cyber defense or artificial intelligence, the company has connections, and the ability, to connect travellers with the right organizations.
Another example, if we’re talking culinary trips, is that Kenes Tours has the keys to unlocking Israel’s booming wine scene.
A customized itinerary might include a day of sightseeing at historical sites with access to award-winning vineyards, weaved in between.
They key word, here, is access, which Scholder calls an “art form” in the realm of touring.
“It’s about combining attractions that people expect when they visit Israel for the first time with experiences, like visiting one of Israel's 400-plus wineries,” he said. “And we know which ones are the best.”
It’s important to make sure visitors not only enjoy a product, but also understand the “people-to-people perspective,” he explained.
“Like the story of the winemakers and what brought them to explore their passion.”
You could apply the same logic to restaurants, agriculture, or local innovation and business. Whatever the interest, Kenes Tours likely has a solution – even it relates to something complex.
For example: for aviation or technology lovers, there’s an experience where guests can go into a F-15, F-16 and F-35 simulator that emulates the feeling of flying a fighter jet.
Kenes Tours may also expose guests to local volunteer projects, like a non-profit based in Tel Aviv called “My Wave” that uses surfing as a tool to teach at-risk youth how to overcome life challenges.
A tour group might spend time with the organization to participate in surfing activities, deliver meals, and help out.
The goal with each itinerary, Scholder said, is to go “beyond the obvious.”
“Our clients come to us because they want to provide their guests with a unique experience, and they know we're a company that's up to the challenge,” he said.
On engaging with Canadian travel advisors: “We're open to all possibilities,” Scholder said, who regularly hosts webinars with Virtuoso, and will host a training for “any agency big or small” that wants to learn more. His email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
FAM trips are also in the works with potential partners, the team said.
“We're counting on Canada,” Bruck said. “We see the potential here.”