News from the market: Israel and LGBTQ
With Israel forging ahead with the vaccination roll out we talk this week to Israeli operator Yanir Horowitz, owner of Yanir Tailor Tours, to get the insider view on the inbound and outbound market there. Yanir is also a specialist on the LGBTQ market so we also look in depth at that market segment, what it looks for from a destination, and what the Balkans region offers to the gay tourist.
NDE: Hi Yanir. Thanks for joining us today. I’m looking forward to hearing about the situation in Israel and learning more about the LGBTQ market from you. Perhaps we should start with a few words about you and an introduction to your company.
YH: Sure. I was born 48 years ago, in June 1973 in Tel Aviv, Israel and all my years have been spent living in Israel. The last seven years have been spent in Ramat Gan, an eastern suburb of Tel Aviv, six of them with my partner in life — Gilad, who works in the Israeli Film Foundation. I’ve been in the tourism industry for over 20 years — yes from the previous century! I started as a tour guide and then worked in the operations departments in several tour operator companies in Israel. In summer 2012 I decided to open my own company, Yanir Tailor Tours, specialising on tailor made trips for individuals and sometimes small groups up to 20 people. I put an emphasis on personal service and fine products, addressing the clients that will appreciate and value that, mostly the mid up market segment. In each destination in my portfolio I’m focused on culture, nature, offbeat experiences, and thinking out of the box. I ask my business partners to think more in ‘the local eye’, so that I don’t offer the same old route or the places that need to be visited. Listening to the clients is really important to me and therefore I’m asking the same from my partners.
There are only 9 million Israelis but we definitely have a presence, as we travel three or four times a year.
NDE: As well as finding out about you and your agency I’d like to explore the LGBTQ side of your business as we haven’t covered this in our blogs yet. Are you a member of IGLTA? If so can you tell us how important this organisation is to you and what it does for you and for LGBTQ tourism?
YH: As a member of the LGBTQ community, I’m presenting the LGBTQ tourism world to the Israeli community covering everything from destinations and tours to events. About five years ago I joined the IGLTA (International Gay and Lesbian Tourism Association). It’s a very important organisation in the worldwide tourism industry, so for me, a small business, being a member and being recognised by IGLTA is an honour. Through it, attending different trade shows, workshops, and fam trips across the world, I’m exposed to different destinations, tourism products, lectures and events relating to the LGBTQ community. When I mention my membership of IGLTA, it opens doors, and it helps me to get to know amazing people that are part of both the LGBTQ and tourism communities all over the world.
The Israeli LGBTQ market is a small one but as with all Israelis, the community loves to travel, maybe even more than average…
NDE: I was part of the team that hosted the IGLTA conference in Antwerp many years ago, so I know what a proactive organisation it is, but it’s great to get your insider view. Let’s have a look at Israel now, the first country to vaccinate over 60% of the population against Covid-19. What does this mean for the tourism industry there?
YH: First of all, let me set things straight and give you the full picture: as you say we haven’t vaccinated the entire population. There are almost 1 million Israelis that are not vaccinated and don’t want to be for several reasons. Children up to the age of 16 years are not vaccinated either. The plan is to start the vaccine for 12 to 15 year olds by the beginning of the summer. But that said we have vaccinated over 60% now which is definitely positive. As regards tourism, Israel is still closed for international tourism. The main source markets before the pandemic were: the USA, Russia, Germany, France, and the UK.
The re-opening should be on the 23rd May, for groups only, and only from the USA, UK & UAE, but the official guidelines and protocols are not clear yet, and there is much debate about how the groups can travel in a ‘bubble’ and what impact this will have on restaurants and hotels concerning domestic guests. Tourists coming here need to be vaccinated by one of the four vaccines approved by Israel: Pfizer, AstraZeneca, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson. They need to do a PCR test 72 hours before leaving their country and a blood test on arrival in Israel, which is the most contentious part. I can report that currently not all the hotels have reopened, and close to 50% are still closed, with those relying on international tourism, mostly in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Nazareth being the ones most affected. The Dead Sea, Eilat, and Tiberius are among the most popular destinations for domestic tourism and there the hotels need to act according to the ‘green protocol’ — accepting vaccinated people only or ones who are cured from Covid, while children need to do a PCR test. Many attractions are still closed because they appeal to children, who, of course, are not vaccinated, places such as waterparks. Theatres are open, and outdoor places are starting to open, so I think this will change, as the zoo, for example, is now open.
Regarding outbound travel, Israelis can travel abroad to some countries already, those which recognise the Israeli vaccine certificate listing approved international vaccines. A list of 14 approved countries was recently published, including the UK, Denmark, Iceland and Malta. Greece and Cyprus, which were the number one and two destinations for Israelis prior to the pandemic are not on the list though, and there is also a lack of reciprocation. For instance Croatia and Georgia will allow Israelis to enter their country but we are not open for them to visit us. Everything depends on the epidemiological situation, which is evolving, but at least things are moving in the right direction, and more flights are coming on line. There are flights with major carriers such as BA, Lufthansa and the American airlines, plus flights to Georgia, the UAE, Iceland and a popular direct flight to the Seychelles. Sri Lanka has also just launched. And for the Balkans, there are direct flights to Croatia, Montenegro and Serbia.
We got some other good news this week. Our vaccine certificate was valid for six months, but the government just announced that it is valid to the end of the year, which gives a bit more breathing space and selling time for Israeli tour operators.
NDE: It’s good to see that Israel and some countries are starting to open up, at least to those who have been vaccinated. Prior to this slow re-opening, how has the last year been for you?
YH: Israel was among the very first countries to start closing itself to incoming travel, and it also imposed strict regulations on outbound travel starting with China, Thailand, and South Korea followed by Italy. This started already at the end of January 2020 while the official lockdown was from the beginning of March 2020. Since then the tourism industry has dropped to zero. For me personally there has been no real income since February 2020. There was a short period in summer 2020 and at the end of 2020 when Israelis could travel to a very few green countries but it was nothing and didn’t benefit me. I’m living from aid that the country is giving as support and I’m lucky in that my partner has been working from July 2020, even during the lockdowns.
NDE: When you say ‘I’m living from aid that the country is giving as support’, can you give us some details of how the system works there? Here in the UK we can claim business grants, which we have to pay back eventually, and also we can claim furlough pay for staff — up to 80% of their earnings up to a maximum amount. What is the government doing to support affected businesses and is there any targeted help for the tourism industry?
YH: Last June, after pressure from the public due to the economic situation caused by the pandemic, the Israeli government decided on a large economic program that will secure, in a kind of way, income for those most affected, until the end of June 2021. There are many different types of aid, either personal ones or business focused ones based on several categories and conditions. The plan is to reduce the unemployment figures and bring them back as close as possible to the numbers they were before the pandemic. Some of the aid packages are loans with state subsidies, some come as money paid directly to the person’s account to make up for lost wages, and some come as incentives to business to keep staff in employment, which is effectively furlough payments. Payment is made every 2 months and the government is paying about 70% of the pre-Covid salary. It all needs to be reported as income during 2021 for tax, so one hand is giving while the other is taking away. The program is different from the one in Europe or in the UK. Believe me, even some of the CPA 7 professors in economics can’t understand the program or the maths behind it.
There is now a big issue with the tourism industry which is declaring itself an exceptional industry and asking to be treated differently with specific terms, conditions and aid. If the 23rd May doesn’t deliver big numbers in terms of bookings, and the tourism industry cannot claim the subsidies after the end of June, the tourism industry in Israel, both incoming and outgoing, could see a financial crisis. As a minimum it takes 60 days from launching a product to getting it operational with people on the trip, and typically the lead in time is three to four months, so we don’t have much lead in time for this Summer. Let’s see and hope for the best. The good news is that Israelis are travelling, even if not in the same numbers as before. One million Israelis travelled within the ten day holiday period of Passover and currently we are seeing 5,000 Israelis travel per day, but this is a drop in the ocean compared to pre-covid levels. More good news is that the EU just announced that Israel is on the list of countries which can travel to Europe and, so we look forward to being able to travel to Greece and Cyprus, our number one and two destinations, again soon. Each EU country can make their own decision and so far Austria, France, Italy and Spain have all said they will welcome vaccinated Israeli travellers, so things are changing positively every day.
NDE: Keeping the focus on Israel, but looking at your specific sector, please tell us how is the LGBTQ market in Israel? Do you only handle business from Israel or do you receive requests from an international audience? How do you promote your products?
YH: The Israeli LGBTQ market is a small one but as with all Israelis, the community loves to travel, maybe even more than average, and especially to party destinations such as Barcelona, Madrid, Mykonos and Berlin. There are only 9 million Israelis but we definitely have a presence, as we travel three or four times a year. The LGBTQ market is the same, and maybe they even travel a bit more. I’m handling only bookings from Israel and from time to time friends, or friends of friends, that are planning to visit Israel ask for my assistance and guidance. Most of my clients are repeaters or from word of mouth recommendations and at the same time I’m active on Facebook, both on my personal page and in different groups. From time to time I upload a picture on Instagram and I probably should do more on Linkedin.
When I mention my membership of IGLTA, it opens doors, and it helps me to get to know amazing people that are part of both the LGBTQ and tourism communities all over the world.
NDE: I know that there is quite a support network with IGLTA. Do you work with other LGBTQ operators on joint ventures or to promote their programmes?
Yes, I work with other LGBTQ operators thanks to IGLTA and I’m doing my best to promote their programs and products in Israel. My aim is to offer and promote products and programmes to the LGBTQ community here which they wouldn’t otherwise have seen or considered. Within the Balkans I have promoted Pink Week in Slovenia and a gay cruise in Croatia, working with other IGLTA member in both cases.
NDE: Are there any special requirements that your clients need from suppliers? — this could be kosher meals, LGBTQ awareness training from check-in staff, I’m sure you have a few things you want to mention.
YH: Since I’m dealing with and offering tailor made so every client has his own wishes and requirements. I’m not dealing so much with kosher requirements — there are companies in Israel that are working on this religious market, and know it very well. If I have such a request, I ask for vegetarian options. Same with LGBTQ. If I’m requesting to a company from the community then there is not much to add, as they will know the requirements. If not then I’m asking, explaining & answering questions. More & more destinations, hotels, and companies want to address the LGBTQ community, which is a real positive, and they want to understand how to handle this.
NDE: I was on a seminar organised by the IGLTA and they were pointing out that it was sometimes basic things which were important, like hotel reception staff not double checking bedroom arrangements when single sex couples checked in. I’m sure that has improved in recent years but is it that kind of thing which you need to explain?
YH: Well yes, and checking if it is ok to walk hand in hand down the street, for instance. In most cities this is fine, but in the rural areas this could be an issue. Things like making sure the driver and guide understand that they are travelling with gay clients is also important. I feel that although Serbia hosted The Eurovision Song Contest in 2008, and had a lot of gay people in the city at the time — and don’t forget the lady who won it for them the year before was from the LGBTQ community — it still is a place where gay travellers are not commonplace, so education is essential. In fact I could say the same about most Balkan countries. They’ve had gay representatives at Eurovision, Dein from Bosnia, Sestre from Slovenia, but I don’t feel the community is fully embraced yet, although at the New Deal Europe event, one of the Bosnian DMCs wanted to learn about handling the gay market, so it’s great to see that people want to understand the LGBTQ community and make sure that we get the correct service.
NDE: This leads nicely onto New Deal Europe. This was your first time at the event and thank you for your support. As you have attended many fairs this year, I’m curious to know what your first experience was like.
YH: Thank you for having me and letting me be part of your event and hopefully soon we’ll be able to do it in person. It was an intensive day but a very productive one. I liked the combination of destination presentations throughout the day, the option for breaks and that we could have a few minutes between each e-meeting. The quality of the suppliers was good and it was great to establish new contacts and even e-meet old ones.
NDE: the event was focused on the Balkans. How important is the Balkans region for you? Is it a destination you want to grow and is it on the radar in Israel and on the radar for LGBTQ travellers?
YH: The Balkans is one of the popular areas in Israel. Greece, as I said, is the number one destination for the Israelis and we are waiting for it to reopen. Slovenia and Croatia are among the top destinations as well, with the number of Israelis visiting Slovenia having increased every year before the pandemic. Montenegro started to catch up, and Serbia, especially Belgrade, is getting there. North Macedonia had direct flights to Ohrid but this has been stopped now, although it did put the destination on the map. In Bulgaria, the top places for the Israelis taking their vacation there are Varna and Burgas. For me personally, the Balkans is one of the places that I love to go to. I offer Greece, Slovenia, and Croatia, to be in the game with the popular destinations, but it is also a hidden gem, with off the beaten track destinations such as Bosnia, Moldova and even Serbia, and I also promote these. I’m looking for unique places, accommodations, and experiences, and the region certainly offers all this. As for the LGBTQ community, Greece is for sure the number one while for the other countries, you can count on one hand the number of requests or expressions of interest. Yet this is the place where I’m looking to become a specialist, because I think it has real potential. For example, next year, 2022, Belgrade will host the Euro Pride. This is a great opportunity for me to put Belgrade and Serbia in the mind of the Israeli LGBTQ community.
Within the Balkans I have promoted Pink Week in Slovenia and a gay cruise in Croatia.
NDE: The Balkans is a leader in activity based sustainable tourism products. How important is sustainability to you and your clients?
YH: It is important from all sides. Adventure, culture, nature and activity is always asked for and is part of my services. For me even visiting a local village, integrating with the locals, learning of their daily life, is part of sustainability.
NDE: And how do you see the future of travel in your segment?
YH: Wow, a big question these days. To be optimistic, there are some positives ahead even in the coming Summer but mostly I think it will be towards Q4 or Q1 next year before we see real movement in tourism. I’ll try to picture it like this: 2020 we were in shock — what is that? How come the world is closing down? 2021 we are learning to live alongside it, there is the start of a vaccine, a hope, a restart of tourism, like putting the keys in the car starter and turning it on. 2022 we will restart, begin moving into first gear and driving. The lead in time won’t be as it was before, when planning was done around three to four months ahead — it will be maybe one to two months. Like I said, the Israelis love to travel, they want badly to travel and if you give us the chance to travel, then we will.
As for the LGBTQ market this is evolving in interesting directions. We are now seeing LGBTQ family travel, and places like Thailand are appealing to this section of the community. Gay cruising is becoming more popular, led by La Dimanche in Belgium, and I’m promoting a cruise to South Africa next year which should open up that destination to the Israeli LGBTQ traveller. As more places hold Pride weekends, more places appear on the radar. Right now I’m thinking of offering Pride in Iceland as something new, and Europride in Belgade in 2022 and in Malta in 2023 will introduce those destinations too. Who knows, Kosovo has just opened an embassy in Jerusalem so we could be there before long. There are really so many opportunities.
Like I said, the Israelis love to travel, they want badly to travel and if you give us the chance to travel, then we will.
NDE: And finally Yanir, you are obviously a fan of Eurovision. Who are you tipping to win this year?
YH: I really like Lithuania and Switzerland, but I really want Lithuania to win, just so that I can organise a trip to Vilnius.