Israel Backs Chinese Film to Boost Tourism

The country's Tourism Ministry has invested in the Jerusalem-set Chinese film "Old Cinderella" in the hope it will entice Chinese tourists to visit Israel.

Domestic comedies set in faraway foreign lands are the surprise hot ticket at the Chinese box office so far in 2013. 

The road comedy Lost in Thailand set the precedent in January, pulling in more than $215 million in China. The feel-good film is set in Northern Thailand and reportedly was made for less than $5 million. And Finding Mr. Right -- a rom-com about an unlikely Chinese romance in Seattle -- has sealed the makings of a trend with its haul of $81 million as of Monday.

Now, an unlikely party -- the government of Israel -- is looking to get in on the action.

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The Israeli Tourism Ministry reportedly has invested $83,000 in the Chinese romantic-comedy Old Cinderella, starring Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu (Rush Hour 3), and shot in Jerusalem, the Dead Sea and at other historic sites in the country.

The Tourism Ministry hopes that the exposure provided by the film in China will boost the number of tourists from the country -- the world’s fastest-growing national tourism sector -- making trips to Israel.

“We are investing in marketing, hosting journalists and have opened an agency in China. We want to put Israel on the map there,” Sofia Prizant Pinkas, head of the Tourism Ministry’s China desk, told Bloomberg News.

Tourism brings about $10 billion of indirect and direct revenue into Israel each year, according to the Tourism Ministry.

According to research group Tourism Competitive Intelligence, last year about 40 million international tourists chose their destination based on an impression they got from a film shot in the country. About 8 million Chinese selected their destination according to what they saw in the movies, according to the Israeli ministry.

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The investment “is the best value for the money,” Tourism Ministry Director General Noaz Bar Nir told Bloomberg TV. “We want to double, and even more, the number of tourists this year. Maybe after this movie, the numbers will rise to hundreds of thousands of Chinese to Israel.”

Lost in Thailand presents a compelling case study for nations considering encouraging Chinese film shoots in their territories for the tourism benefits. A recent study from Thai financial research firm KResearch projected that 800,000 Chinese tourists will visit Thailand in first-quarter 2013, a year-over-year increase of 37.9 percent. Explicitly citing the increased appeal of Thailand among Chinese travelers thanks to the film, KResearch estimates that Chinese tourists will generate as much as $1 billion (29.6 billion Thai baht) in revenue -- a 44.4 percent year-over-year increase -- for travel-related business in Thailand in 2013.

“The tourism potential for Israel from China is far from realized, and one of the goals of the ministry for 2013 is to break into the Chinese market,” former tourism minister Stas Misezhnikov said in March.

In 2012, according to the China Tourism Academy, 83 million Chinese traveled abroad, spending $105 billion. The CTA estimates that 94 million Chinese will travel abroad this year.

Old Cinderella star Zhang says her family and friends in China initially were concerned when she told them she was going to Israel to shoot.

“They said, ‘Isn’t it dangerous?’ and then I sent photos and blogs back with the Dead Sea and other things, and now they say, ‘That is so beautiful, it is an amazing place,’ ” the actress said in her interview with Bloomberg. “If we show it on the screen, the audience is going to say, maybe next holiday we will go to Israel.”