Travel agents redesign packages as gambling tourism goes mainstream


(eTN) – Gambling is illegal in Israel, leaving locals with no choice but to travel abroad, or at least row the gaming boat into international waters to pursue their interest. Over the years it had been largely a hidden vice, but lately the industry’s image has undergone a makeover. It isn’t only for addicts any more: Travel agencies report booming business as gambling holidays go mainstream.

Hundreds of thousands of Israelis, a serious proportion of the population, gambles beyond the borders and that doesn’t include the heavy gamers, says Yehuda Zafrani, deputy manager of Ophir Tours. “One out of every three Israelis who reaches a big foreign city with a casino, like Varna (Bulgaria), Budapest (Hungary), or Prague (Czech Republic) goes into a casino,” he estimates.

There are actual numbers that support his theory. Since the need for a visa to enter Romania was abolished a few months ago, the number of Israeli visitors has soared by 35%. Given the popularity of gambling, tour operators are changing the programs they offer to include a gaming venue. And when designing new packages, they seek destinations that offer the distraction of the die.

The most famous casinos in the world are in Las Vegas, but most Israelis prefer closer venues, for reasons of convenience and price: Bulgaria, Croatia, the Turkish part of Cyprus and Hungary are all favorites. In winter, demand for these destinations soars: It doesn’t matter if it’s snowing outside, if the dice are hot.

Also, Europe’s casinos have learned the “killer app” that wins the Israeli heart: free meals and alcohol, and while about it, signs in Hebrew.

Another new hotness in the gambling scene is Macao, China, which won massive publicity thanks to the inauguration of the world’s biggest casino-hotel belonging to none other than Sheldon Adelson, famous in Israeli circles for the freebie-newspaper wars. Macao hosts 20 million gamblers a year and invested billions in creating its allures, and then there’s the coming Olympic Games in China. Meanwhile, Vegas is rather losing its allure, though not all Israelis would agree – Yitzhak Tshuva and Nochi Dankner have teamed up in a huge casino-complex building venture on the Strip.

Macao has another trick up its sleeve vis-a-vis Vegas: Israelis don’t need a visa to go there. Aladdin Travel marketing manager Eyal Stark says thousands of Israelis went to Macao in 2007, via hovercraft from Hong Kong.

Travel and accommodation prices, naturally, vary tremendously. You can get a room in Macao for as little at NIS 300 a night, though that hotel won’t have its own casino. The upscale rooms cost something over NIS 1,500 a night. From year-end 2008, Royal Jordanian will be flying directly to Hong Kong. Low-cost flights are also available to Manchester, which is the first U.K. city to boast a Vegas-style palace. Varna’s big gambling houses are friendly to comers and issue them immediate membership cards. But flights to Varna have ceased for winter and will only resume in spring, when fruit trees bud, and the ice falls off jet engine housings.