Secular people looking for a vacation abroad think mainly about destination and price. They look on the Internet for good deals and might even wait until the last minute to decide, depending on what comes up. For the ultra-Orthodox, things are not so simple.
An ultra-Orthodox traveler, says Ya’akov Cohen, director of Tour Plus, which specializes in an ultra-Orthodox clientele, does have that luxury.
Tourism organizers in Israel, aware of the increasing desire of ultra-Orthodox consumers to take a break from life in Israel, are looking for quality hotels in the cooler parts of Europe, like ski resorts, where tourism activity at this time of year is minimal and hotel occupancy rates are low.
Hotel owners, with lots of empty rooms at the height of the summer, are grateful for the chance to fill them and are happy to accommodate Haredi needs.
According to Cohen, hotels abroad are hungry for Israeli tourists. “I’m marketing the Bonigen Hotel in Switzerland this year for the seventh year in a row,” he says. “Guests go back again and again, even though it’s the same destination.”
Finding a suitable hotel is just the beginning. Then comes the bigger task of kashering the hotel, including the dishes, cutlery and dishwashers.
“If you can’t kasher something, they you buy a new one,” he says. “They make separate areas for milk and meat, bring in kashrut supervisors, hire an Israeli chef who knows Israeli tastes and knows how to deal with the amounts of food Israelis like, and even hire a baker to make fresh bread every morning. That all requires hiring experts from Israel.”
Making hotels Sabbath-ready
Then there are the automatic doors and the television sets that have to be suitable for Sabbath observers, the air-conditioning, lights with timers in the guests’ rooms and more.
No doubt a huge operation, but, Cohen says, “without years of experience you can cause religious and ultra-Orthodox vacationers great distress.”
The logistics and complexities express themselves in the bottom line. According to Adiel Tal, CEO of the tour packager ctravel, it costs 30,000 euros ($33,200) to kasher a hotel for the summer, but that’s not the main expense.
“The main investment is in bringing kosher food to the hotel from all sorts of places in the world. It’s not simple to bring meat to Norway, for example, where we have a hotel, but somehow we do it,” Tal says.
The cost of a seven-night package, including flight, hotel and a bus with a guide, to the Austrian and French Alps or to Norway, is between 1,250 and 1,800 euros (about $1,400 to $2,000) per person in a double room, depending on dates and destination.
“The cost of the room itself jumps by 20% to 25% and that impacts the cost of the whole package, which jumps by about 15% compared to what we would ask if we didn’t have to keep the place kosher,” Tal says.
Cohen also says the packages are more expensive but that “the client gets a fair exchange for the price he pays.”
Efrat Erentroi, a tour agent specializing in the ultra-Orthodox market at Kraus Tours, a subsidiary of Eshet Tours, says some of her clients “want to order a room in a hotel from me, and I simply make sure it’s located near kosher restaurants and synagogues and also near shops that sell kosher food so they can buy food.”
Proximity to Jewish communities also impacts the cost of the room. “These are hotels that are usually in the city center and the prices are higher,” she adds.
The ultra-Orthodox touring season is at its height right now.
Tisha B’Av has passed and the children don’t start school or yeshiva until the Jewish new year, a period known as “bein hazmanim.”
The religious and ultra-Orthodox newspapers are filled with ads for strictly kosher vacations abroad that are careful to specify what body is responsible for its kashrut certification.
If in the past, preferred destinations were Safed and Tiberias in Israel, now, with more Haredim working and earning money for luxuries like foreign holidays, the list includes France and Austria.
Still, sources in the industry estimate the market for ultra-Orthodox and religious tourism at just a little more than 20 million shekels ($5.2 million) for the summer season, but a good deal of it is spent on vacations abroad.
Cohen says he has seen a 20%-30% rise in vacations abroad by the ultra-Orthodox in recent years, and the number of destinations has increased from as few as two to 10 or 15.
What tourism industry people see on the ground is confirmed by Tourism Ministry surveys: The tastes of ultra-Orthodox travelers are changing.
There was more than a 50% increase in Haredi vacations in Israel from 2003 to 2013 and a 55% increase in vacations taken abroad. There was also an increase in the number of times a year ultra-Orthodox are taking time off to travel, with 55% reporting taking more than one vacation a year.
The number of ultra-Orthodox people staying overnight in bed-and-breakfast accommodations increased by 133% from 2003 to 2013, and use of the Internet for information about vacations has tripled.
When participants in surveys were asked where they preferred to spend their vacations, in Israel or abroad, nearly a third said they wanted to go abroad.
But only about half of those asked actually took a foreign holiday. When asked why they wanted to vacation abroad, 15% each said they had family overseas, that they wanted to see new places and that it was cheaper than vacationing in Israel.
Dr. Lee Kahaner of the Oranim Academic College, together with Prof. Yoel Mansfeld and Dr. Aliza Yunis of the Tourism Research Center at the University of Haifa, conducted a study on the perception of risk among ultra-Orthodox travelers considering a vacation overseas.
The study, based on a focus group of ultra-Orthodox women, found four groups of concern: religious and sociocultural issues; logistics (organization before the trip and physical conditions); family finances; and quality, safety and security on vacation.
“These are the same risk perceptions that secular travelers have,” says Kahaner, “but the complexity of finding solutions to these concerns among the ultra-Orthodox make them much more challenging because of the size of the family in this community.”