If one chooses to believe Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz's
vision, the Education Ministry had better consider introducing Chinese as a second language in Israeli schools, as we are about to be flooded with millions of Chinese tourists who are only dreaming of visiting Israel.
Their only problem is that there are not enough pilots to operate all the planes expected to arrive from Beijing to Ben-Gurion Airport.
Katz recently announced a new aviation agreement between China and Israel, which was signed by Director of the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel Giora Romm and his Chinese colleague, Li Jiaxiang.
According to the agreement, each country will be able to operate up to 14 weekly flights on the Israel-China route and another seven cargo flights, compared to three weekly flights currently operated by El Al.
Minister Katz said he believed "the agreement may bring to Israel hundreds of thousands and even millions of Chinese who the Jewish people's history." But senior tourism industry officials recall a similar statement made by previous Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov when he visited China three years ago with a delegation of Israeli entrepreneurs.
In a meeting held in June 2010, after China had already declared Israel a favored tourist destination, the Chinese tourism minister promised to work to expose Israel as an attractive tourist destination, adding that the State of Israel was a very intriguing country for the Chinese tourist.
Misezhnikov noted in the meeting that the Tourism Ministry's goal was to bring tens of thousands of tourists from China every year by easing the issuing of entry visas, especially for tourists arriving in groups for organized tours.
So what has happened since then? Not much. Tourism Ministry figures show that in 2010 Israel had 16,316 visitors from China, in 2011 some 20,000, and in 2012 – 19,416. The vast majority arrived as part of business tourism, and only few came as real tourists.
"In order to understand the extent of the missed opportunity, we should look at what is going on in the US," says a senior tourism industry official. "In 2012, 1.474 million tourists arrived in the US from China, a 35% increase compared to 2011. Some 1.9 million Chinese tourists are expected to arrive in the US this year, a further increase of 30%.
"China today is the seventh country of origin in tourism to the US, and according to the American forecast it will become the third country of origin in 2018 after Canada and Mexico, and the number of Chinese tourists will reach at 4.3 million.
"We have a problem. We are not making things easy for the Chinese when it comes to entry visas, while European countries are doing that. We have no Chinese guides, hotels are not prepared to take in this public, Israel is a very expensive country for tourists from China and the flights are very expensive too, and will continue to be expensive even if more flights are added."