Amidst the whirlwind of tensions that monopolizes much of Israel's airtime attention, it does appear to be a wonder sometimes that anyone would choose to live in such a tumultuous and threatened nation, let alone vacation here. Indeed, it is not unusual for outsiders to shake their heads dismally at the newest sensationalized upheaval, wondering, 'when will those hot-heads in the Middle East get their act together?' And this languid desire for peace and quiet is not unfounded; in point of fact, the state of Israel has been in a perpetual state of war with its neighboring countries since it's Declaration of Statehood in 1948, which was marked by Transjordan, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq launching a joint attack on the infant nation meant to 'drive the Jews into the sea'. The truth is Israel itself would like some peace and quiet more than anyone. And yet, despite the troubling realities of a nation living under the constant shadow of war, Israel has miraculously thrived in almost every way imaginable!
With one of the most stable economies in the world, an outstanding reputation for ingenuity in ecological conservation and hi-tech innovation (Israel is after all the 'Start-up Nation'), Israel also succeeds in bringing nearly half its population's worth in visitors each year to Israel. Clearly there is a break down between the assumed reality of this 'nation under threat' and the facts on the ground that determine what real life and the experience of visitin Israel is actually like. To better understand this phenomena, IsraCast spoke to tourism experts Talmi Fridman and Reuven Doron to explain what it's really like for visitors coming to Israel.
LISTEN TO THE INTERVIEW WITH TALMI FRIDMAN AND REUVEN DORON:
READ THE INTERVIEW BELOW:
Rivki: Shalom, and welcome to IsraCast online, recording from Jerusalem. This is Rivki Matan. As part of our segment on tourism in Israel, we have two special guests here to today to talk to us about visiting Israel – Reuven Doron and Talmi Fridman.
Reuven: It's a pleasure to be with you here Rivki. My name is Reuven Doron. I've been serving in the incoming tourism industry in Israel for a number of years. And with us of course is Talmi Fridman, one of the managing directors of Genesis Tours, one of Israel's most experienced tour operators. And we want to talk about the things that often times don’t show in the mainline media outlets around the world.
"Having had to defend itself since the day the state of Israel was born, the nation of Israel, in fact, has learned to become very resilient in the face of much adversity in order to continue to thrive and progress and move forward as a nation in a very unfriendly neighborhood. "
Talmi: Hi Reuven, Rivki, thank you for having me here today.
Reuven: Well, it's good to be here together today, especially with such times when the recent turmoil, the upheaval that we see all around the Middle East, and the news coming out of Israel and the area – it is amazing to realize that a person is still safer in Israel today than in most major metropolitan areas in North America or in Europe. This is the statistical fact. Having had to defend itself since the day the state of Israel was born, the nation of Israel, in fact, has learned to become very resilient in the face of much adversity in order to continue to thrive and progress and move forward as a nation in a very unfriendly neighborhood.
And here with us today at the recording studio we have Talmi Fridman, manager of business development at Genesis Tours, one of the leading tour operators in Israel that's been serving international communities for nearly 25 years. And Talmi is here with us to talk to us and help us understand what Israel is like these days, and help us gain a perspective on what you don't hear about in the main media outlets and the news, and basically to see why everybody can, and probably should come and experience the realities of Israel for themselves. Talmi, welcome to the studio.
Talmi: Thank you. Thank you very much for having me here.
Reuven: Well, it is a marvelous thing to consider that in a neighborhood so turbulent and so prone to drama and unfortunate tragedies, that Israel remains an island of relative stability these days.
" Israel remains an island of stability, of democracy, of freedom – and these are values that I think Israel stands for. Even these days, we're still keeping them up."
Talmi: Yes, this is true. I think the key word to use is 'turbulent' and I would also add 'challenging'. We're living in very challenging times in the area, and it's amazing to find out that even within these days, Israel remains an island of stability, of democracy, of freedom – and these are values that I think Israel stands for. Even these days, we're still keeping them up.
Reuven: Right, and working in the industry of hosting the nations in Israel, really seeing people coming from many, many nations. First of all, the numbers are staggering. I think that Israel sees roughly 4 million visitors a year?
Talmi: Well, it's a little bit less than 4 million, but we're getting there. The tourism industry in Israel has been growing a lot in the last few years, and it's still growing. Like anywhere else, we're also facing challenges of being a small country, and hosting that big of numbers is always challenging. You have to have hotels, and buses, and restaurants, and roads, and everything that you need to host all these people; but it's definitely a thriving industry when we have quiet times.
Reuven: Well, just to put it in perspective, hosting nearly 4 million souls a year here – this is about half the size of the entire population of the state of Israel.
Talmi: Even a little more than half.
Reuven: Put it American terms, it's like the unites states of America trying to host 150 million people a year coming through the place – having to feed them, house them, accommodate their needs, and give them a good time.
Talmi: And take into consideration that Israel is even smaller than California.
Reuven: It's about the size of New Jersey.
"And I thought that was just amazing how in a time and a region that is so entrenched in conflict when it comes to social equality, that Israel among all the nations in this region is really celebrating its strong women and allowing them opportunities."
Rivki: Regarding what you were saying before about Israel being an 'island of peace' in this area, it reminded me of how I found it so interesting in Israel's Independence Day, this last one, the focus and theme was the 'Women of Israel'. And the torch lighters were all women. They were everything from artists, to lawyers and doctors - all these very accomplished women who were able to really meet their full potential. And I thought that was just amazing how in a time and a region that is so entrenched in conflict when it comes to social equality, that Israel among all the nations in this region is really celebrating its strong women and allowing them opportunities. And I thought that was a very clear difference between the freedom and the democracy that we have here, and the protection for minorities, as opposed to almost everywhere else I can think in this same region. (Ironically, in a doughty effort to further relieve itself of legitimacy, the U.N. recently declared that it has found Israel to be the greatest violator of women's rights in the word – including well known offenders such as Saudi Arabia and Iran.)
Talmi: That's true. Israel is a place where even if you are not only a Jew – if you are a Christian of any denomination; if you are a Muslim, whether you are Shiite or a Sunni, a Druze or a Charkesic [Muslim], it doesn't matter. You won't be bothered here. You have freedom to worship and to express your thoughts and your beliefs and faith. And your right to do that is protected. I don’t know if people always take that into consideration and give it the importance that is has. Especially as you mentioned, in times when the situation of Christians in all the countries around us is very challenging, such as in Syria, or in Iraq where we hear daily of more churches (some of the older synagogues in the history of mankind) are being destroyed. So I think that in that aspect, Israel is really a place that some of countries should look up to.
"These are remarkable things that the news media often times does not give exposure to until a person comes to Israel."
Reuven: And these are facts that rarely really show up in the mainline media. The mainline media is dealing with the dramatic pieces that will draw people's attention – it's all about sensationalism, so you come up with a big story, and you show the graphic portrayals of another drama or another heartbreaking story. But the facts are often times different, and that is why we wanted to talk with you today, Talmi, and let our listeners get a perspective and an insight to how meaningful it is for visitors to come to Israel and see for themselves the reality of the land, it is an island of stability. Israel is an island of prosperity. With all of its economical challenges, having to survive in an unfriendly neighborhood, and being a young nation as it is (barely 66 years old), and being basically a desert region – half of Israel is desert. We still are struggling with water issues until today, and yet economy is booming. With all of its challenges, people can make a good living, the unemployment is uniquely low, education is prevalent (everybody who wants, and most people do, can accomplish and achieve higher education in Israel). These are remarkable things that the news media often times does not give exposure to until a person comes to Israel.
Talmi: Yes, and it's interesting to mention that in the hosting industry, it's one of the industries where some of these main aspects come to light because when you're here in Israel, this is an industry where all the groups in Israel are involved. You can have Jewish guide, a Muslim bus driver, an Arab Christian store that you go into in east Jerusalem, or a Druze village that you visit and have lunch in. So really, this is one of the industries where people can really see the diversity of Israel culturally and religiously – working side by side and really trying to make this small country progress.
And it's also interesting to say that we've grown so much in so few years, and Israel is now a technological power house. I think it’s the number 2 country after Canada with the most companies in the NAZDAC. We don’t depend on rainfall for our water anymore, we have the desalinization plants. So, it's really a small miracle.
Rivki: Despite being a desert region and having many struggles throughout the years - I remember there were some years of drought where everyone was asked by the government to conserve water – today we are number 1 in water conservation technology in the world, and that's something that Israel has been sharing; I know specifically with different developing countries in Africa.
Talmi: Not only that but I think that most people don’t know that we actually provide water to our neighbors. We provide water to Jordan – this is part of the peace agreement. We do it because we want these countries to be stable, and we want them to progress. We provide electricity to the Gaza Strip. Even within the last operation in Gaza, Israel was still providing electricity, food, fuel, medical equipment and support to the Gaza Strip. And this is something that most people don’t know and don’t see until you come here and you learn of the realities in the region.
"Even within the last operation in Gaza, Israel was still providing electricity, food, fuel, medical equipment and support to the Gaza Strip. And this is something that most people don’t know and don’t see until you come here and you learn of the realities in the region."
Reuven: And what we see often times in the tourism industry is that when a visitor comes here, often times in a group setting, they come for eight or ten days in Israel, and your company, as well as many others of course, are able, if they desire, to lead them through an experience that will include the technological breakthroughs, the ecological wonders. I know that we have desert farming operations in Israel that are being exported to many other nations where food is an issue. Israel has perfected those items to feed its own population.
Your company takes also people through the beauty of the land. The land of Israel is gorgeous place, and folks can't get that from watching a website or from listening to a news media. But coming the land, and placing their feet on the Golan Heights, or in Jerusalem, or the coast of the Mediterranean, and certainly going to these remarkable spots like the Dead Sea, or the Red Sea, or the wilderness of Judea. The place comes alive for everyone who comes here to visit.
Talmi: Definitely. Israel has a lot to offer, and sadly if you come for only eight or ten days, you hardly see a small part of it. And I think it can offer a lot of different things to a lot of different people. If you come here on a faith-based trip, this where the Words come to life; you can see the places where the prophets actually walked, where things really happened. It's really interesting for these kinds of visitors to visit the Galilee, to come to Jerusalem, and really become a part of history. But also for those who come for more technological issues, they can see how Israel has thrived through the years with many innovations – some remarkable inventions that people use every day, such as the disk-on-key that was invented here in Israel; or cherry tomatoes are another Israeli invention.
Reuven: I read recently that Israel is actually number 2 to Silicon Valley in California in terms of high tech research and development. Probably most, if not all, of the main high tech companies in the world have research and development facilities here in Israel. And so much of the technology that we use all over the world was hatched here in some office in Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
And you're right, Talmi – especially for people of faith that come here with an open bible; we often hear from them as well, that this is the place where the Bible comes alive, it's where the prophets walked. For the Christian community, it's where Jesus, the Son of God Himself, lived and worked, and worked miracles, and died and rose again. For the Muslim community of course, Israel is important. And primarily for the Jewish people themselves who wandered around the world for two thousand years praying "Next year in Jerusalem," this was the prevailing prayer for the Jewish community. And what a joy for the industry of tourism to host Jewish groups, and I know you do that as well, and others like you come to Israel to find and reconnect to the roots of their faith. So, whether a person is Christian or Jewish, Israel is the heart of the matter for so much of the things people hold dear in their hearts. And I know we hear it from folks all the time, it is the place where so much of what they know in their heads becomes alive in their hearts.
"But then it's an amazing process that people go through here, and when they leave the country they are the best ambassadors we could send out to the world. Because once you've been here, you’ve seen the reality...most visitors just fall in love with Israel."
Talmi: It's true. And we hear all the time when people come here. First of all, sometimes they don’t believe what they see because nobody is riding around on camels and living in tents in the middle of the desert. So first of all they're surprised when they arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport and actually see a modern country. But then it's an amazing process that people go through here, and when they leave the country they are the best ambassadors we could send out to the world. Because once you've been here, you’ve seen the reality; you’ve discovered the people and the landscapes… most visitors just fall in love with Israel. Many of them come back again to see some things again, and see new things as well. Even these days, we're still discovering things archeologically, so there are always new discoveries, new facts that we learn about the land, about the history, about these amazing people that lived here and walked the land…
Reuven: You mentioned history, and I want to ask you – there's a very unique piece of history that your company, Genesis Tours, actually touched upon in your service to the Catholic community. Tell us about that legendary trip.
Talmi: Well, we had the honor of hosting two popes here in Israel – the first one John Paul II in the year 2000 – it was an amazing experience. We had almost 50,000 people coming here; 50,000 Catholics coming to be with the pope during his visit here. It was one of the biggest tourism operations done here in Israel if not the biggest – we had planes coming from all around the world (South and North America, Africa, Europe, Asia). We had groups from Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia, and more. And they all came here as part of this trip. We had an amazing event right beside the Sea of Galilee where the pope gave a mass... It was amazing to see all these people and to see the power of faith, the power of the people. It was an amazing and eye-opening experience. A few years later we had the opportunity to host the pope again. It was a smaller operation, but again, it was about 10,000 that came with him to accompany him on his visit of the land. And we were very close the Vatican and the catholic communities around the world, as well as other Christian communities from other denominations. It's really an honor and a joy.
"We don't own it, we're just here...to manage it and to make the best out of it, and to keep it for current and future generations, and it's a privilege to live here."
Reuven: And I know that not necessarily the formal policy, but the heart policy between the Israeli government and the Israeli tourism industry and ministry of tourism, and others like yourself, who are in the industry of hosting the nations in Israel; there's a healthy perspective whereby we see ourselves as stewards of the treasures. The Land of Israel laid in ruins and neglect for thousands of years; and while the potential was always here, it waited for the right time. The land languished, the prophetic scriptures in the bible speak about that openly, and it wasn't until of the Jewish waves of immigration began to come to the land (your parents and mine were part of those waves of immigration) that the land began to become fruitful again. And there is a healthy and a humbling recognition in many of the officials and the businessmen and women in Israel who are in the business of hosting the nations here, whereby we have the honor and the privilege to be stewards of all these treasures – the historical, archeological, geographical, ecological, and technological treasures, and the treasures of faith – we get to manage it. We get to steward it and bring it to its best potential shape, and then bring the nations to come and see the beauty of what's going on here.
Talmi: We don't own it, we're just here, as you mentioned, to manage it and to make the best out of it, and to keep it for current and future generations, and it's a privilege to live here. When you live here, you don't usually stop and think about it, that you have the privilege to have all these sites and places that you can touch and see and live in almost every day. But as I mentioned, we don't own it, we are here to keep it, to manage it, to make the best of it for the people of the world. We're so glad to be able to do that and to show off a little bit what we have here, and it's really a privilege.
Rivki: It's a deeply meaningful experience to come here and to experience it. Now living here myself, I have friends that I keep in touch with in the States who have expressed their concern for me at different points because of what they see on the news; because they see a very specific and concentrated storyline about what's happening. And in the meantime, what's happening is everybody's going about their lives the best they can, like everyone goes about their lives everywhere else in the world; and like you said, the best way to understand the many layers and facets of the old and the new, and the modern and the ancient, and the technology, but also the religious experience, you just have to come here and experience it because it is such a, we use the Hebrew word 'Balagan', it's just a mess of everything, but it's incredible. It's such an enriching experience to live here and to visit. It's unlike any other place I've ever been.
Talmi: The visit to Israel is life changing, I think. I don't think people that come here, after they leave, they can say that their life is the same. Whether you come here for a faith-bases trip, or technological-based based trip or whatever, whenever you leave here I think that something has changed. Maybe you don't realize it that moment, but sometime after, you realize that something has changed – you look at things a little bit differently. You look at the news a little bit differently. You learn a lot of things, and I think that it's very important for people to be exposed to these realities, to different realities than what they see every day, and try to see things as they really are, not just how they look.
The visit to Israel is life changing ...sometime after, you realize that something has changed – you look at things a little bit differently. You look at the news a little bit differently. You learn a lot of things, and I think that it's very important for people to be exposed to these realities...
Reuven: That's right, it is transformational, and that's why nearly 4 million folks find it in their hearts to come here from all over the world. And even during turbulent times we've seen a lot of tourist and pilgrim traffic coming even throughout this last summer in 2014 while we had the unrest down in the Gaza Strip. As you mentioned, the unrest was highly covered by the media around the world, but usually what the focused on was the world possible graphics of a street corner, or a toppled building, or a corpse in the street, while the fact is that millions of people keep living their lives, going to work, children at school – I took my grandchildren to the beach in the middle of that little war - and I'm not saying that it takes away from the human tragedy, but it is to lift up the fact that life overcomes death. Israel is a wonderful place, especially for people of faith – of course we host ecological and technological trips as well, but for people of faith, to come and have their roots of faith refreshed, their hearts strengthened, and a good remembrance that life always overcomes death. It's like a reboot – come here and reboot your faith.
Rivki: Thank you for coming here today.
Talmi: Thank you very much for having me. I hope that we managed to express a little bit of what we have here every day; as I mentioned, the privilege of hosting people in Israel. We of course welcome everyone that wants to come here. The country is waiting for you with open arms. As I said, the visit to Israel is a life-changing experience, and I think that everyone from everywhere should do it at least once in their lifetime.
Genesis Tours is Israel’s leading Tour Operator for Pilgrims from around the world, with more than 24 years of experience as an industry leader. To learn about booking a tour with Genesis from South American and Europe click here, and to find out about upcoming trips from North America click here.