You can add Israel to the list of new, long-haul destinations Chinese tourists are opting to visit. In the first seven months of 2017, 64,000 Chinese traveled to Israel, representing 66 percent year-on-year growth. It’s a strange destination for growth in Chinese tourism given the somewhat frosty nature of diplomatic relations between Israel. China has recognized Palestine since 1988.
Part of this growth can be attributed to more direct flights to Israel from China, along with cooperation with Chinese online travel agencies (OTAs) like Ctrip.
It has been reported that travel companies have organized several kinds of tours, including ones that cater to so-called “religious history buffs.” It is unclear if these tourists are in fact Chinese Christians traveling to Israel to learn more about the history of their faith, which is something the Chinese government would likely want to downplay the significance of.
Somewhere between 2 and 3 percent of China’s population is Christian, which in absolute numbers represents somewhere between 27 and 41 million people. China is an officially atheist country, and the Chinese government has made efforts to limit the influence of religion on Chinese society, making it difficult to obtain statistics on the religious demographics of China.
Some countries, notably Indonesia, have indicated that they want to promote their own religious tourism catering to Chinese Muslims. Halal tourism is a relatively popular global tourist trend as it can be difficult for Muslims to travel abroad and find food they can eat. Of course, China places substantial travel restrictions on its Muslim population, citing “security concerns.” Because of these limits, it seems unlikely that Chinese Halal tourism will ever grow in any meaningful.
Nonetheless, more Chinese tourists to Israel is an interesting trend and can be seen as part of a broader effort by wealthier Chinese travelers to visit new and exotic locations. Some of these new “up-and-coming” destinations for Chinese tourists, like Morocco, Serbia, or Turkey, have favorable visa policies. Chinese citizens can travel to both Morocco and Serbia visa-free. Chinese visitors to Turkey also enjoy a relatively cheap visa on arrival for $60.
Israel, on the other hand, has no such policy, although it is possible for a Chinese visitor to obtain a ten-year, multi-entry business visa. It’s possible that Chinese Christians are more willing to jump through hoops to visit a country that is so central to their religious beliefs, as opposed to choosing a cheaper or more convenient destination.