A staggering 65 percent of first-time visitors from Britain to Israel have an improved impression of the country after seeing the state for themselves, a new survey has revealed, writes Justin Cohen.

The research, initiated by the Jewish News and conducted by easyJet among more than 500 passengers, also highlights the extent to which the media shapes British views of the Jewish state. Of the 529 first-time easyJet travellers to Israel, 57 percent reported having a ‘much’ or ‘slightly’ better impression on their return to the UK – rising to 65 percent among the 172 respondents who had never previously been at all.

1 Israel 154_Dafna

A huge 78 percent said they would visit again

Exactly half of the total 290 men and 239 women said their impressions had been inaccurate, while just 27 percent said it was accurate. Commenting on their improved perspective, one traveller said: “It’s important to see the country for oneself and that only to think of the reports”, while another described the country as “peaceful, friendly and beautiful”.

Israeli Ambassador Daniel Taub said the results, while good news at first glance, also provided “cause for concern”. He added: “It confirms the troubling fact that widely-held perceptions of Israel are disconnected from, and far more negative, than the reality.” And he warned: “The fact is that the majority of people will never visit Israel and their inaccurate preconceptions are unlikely to be corrected.”

Taub suggested that the statistics raised two key questions. “Can the media truly be fulfilling its responsibility to present that reality accurately?” if such a large percentage of people are so “pleasantly surprised” when seeing the country for themselves.  He added: “The second question is for  Israel and its supporters: If the reality is truly Israel’s greatest ally, what more can we do to enable people to experience the reality of Israel – ideally by bringing them to see it first hand, or failing that,  by bringing a taste of it to them here in the UK?”

One of the other key findings of this summer’s survey was that television was a key shaper of people’s impressions before visiting Israel, with 49 percent of the more than 500 people saying it had an impact. Friends were the second biggest influence on 46 percent, ahead of newspapers and even family. Tourists’ enthusiasm about the venue was also very evident.

A huge 78 percent said they would visit again and a total of 82 percent claimed they had or would recommend the Middle East state as a potential holiday destination. The most popular activities for travellers were visiting tourist and historic sites (69 percent), spending time with friends and family (58 per- cent) and leisure activities including enjoying the beaches (53 percent).

The latter was the most popular option for those aged 35 or under. The results of the poll – for which BICOM provided advice – were released as easyJet said it will fly to Tel Aviv from a third UK airport. It will run three flights weekly from Gatwick from next April, hoping to take an additional 50,000 passengers to the country.

Hugh Aitken, UK commercial manager for easyJet, said: “Our research, in conjunction with the Jewish News, has helped us better understand why passengers choose Tel Aviv. The most striking finding was the destination’s growing popularity with young travellers who viewed it as a relaxing, beach destination.”

He added: “One of the reasons for launching new flights from Gatwick is because Tel Aviv’s appeal has been growing.”

‘Why easyJet statistics can be read two ways’

by Daniel Taub, Israeli Ambassador to the UK.

Ambassador Daniel Taub

Ambassador Daniel Taub

On the face of it the fact that 57% of Easyjet visitors to Israel  said they had a better impression of Israel as a result of their visit is good news. Looked at another way, however, it has to be cause for concern.  It confirms the troubling fact that widely-held perceptions of Israel are disconnected from, and far more negative than, the reality.

 The survey results support the findings of a number of recent studies concerning public impressions of Israel.  One study, using a technique called the “house party test”, asked  focus groups to describe imaginary houses on a street, each representing a different country. Groups which described the Italian house as covered in ivy with pleasant music and good food, and  the Japanese house as being  ornate with tranquil  gardens, invariably described the Israeli house as  surrounded by barbed wire and populated by bearded men wearing black. Clearly the two predominant themes associated with Israel were insecurity and fundamentalist religion.

The good news, as the Easyjet survey shows, is that it takes but a brief visit to Israel, enjoying its culture, its nightlife, or simply speaking to its young people, to dispel these preconceptions.  But the fact is that the vast majority of people will never visit Israel, and their inaccurate preconceptions are unlikely to be corrected.

It seems to me that the results of the survey raise two important questions.

The first is for the media, which  has to take responsibility for most public knowledge about Israel: If more than half of visitors to Israel are so pleasantly surprised by what they see with their own eyes, can the media truly be fulfilling its responsibility to present that reality accurately?

The second question is for  Israel and its supporters: If the reality is truly Israel’s greatest ally, what more can we do to enable people to experience the reality of Israel – ideally by bringing them to see it first hand, or failing that,  by bringing a taste of it to them here in the UK?