With the launching of TAP Air Portugal’s first flight to Israel last month, tourists planning to visit the Jewish state from New Jersey have a new European destination they can explore en route.
With daily flights now leaving from Lisbon to Tel Aviv and back, travelers from New Jersey can merely book a flight through Newark Liberty or John F. Kennedy airport, spend up to five days in Portugal on TAP’s free stopover program, and take a 2:20 p.m. flight from Lisbon that arrives in Tel Aviv just over five hours later. (From Tel Aviv, flights leave at 5:05 a.m. and arrive in Lisbon at 9 a.m.)
TAP’s inaugural flight to Tel Aviv on March 31 had some 200 passengers on board from various countries, including the United States, Israel, and Brazil, along with a group of about 40 pilgrims from the Portuguese island of Madeira, led by Dom Teodoro de Faria, the former Bishop of Funchal, its capital.
Also on board were journalists from Portugal, Brazil, and the United States, including three American-Jewish journalists, on a press trip sponsored by TAP Air Portugal and Israel’s Ministry of Tourism.
After the flight from Lisbon, a fire brigade awaited the plane on the tarmac of Ben-Gurion Airport, greeting it with an unusual welcome — a cascade of water.
“There are many bridges being built between both countries,” Irith Freudenheim, economic attaché at the Portuguese Embassy in Israel, said at a welcome reception for the flight at Ben-Gurion. She was referring to the growing cultural and other ties between Israel and Portugal, including a twinning wineries project. The new route also comes as Portugal increasingly promotes its country’s Jewish heritage. Also, in 2015, Portugal extended citizenship to descendants of Sephardic Jews who fled the country after the Portuguese Inquisition.
There has also been a growing number of Portuguese tourists visiting Israel each year, with 13,100 entering the country in 2018, up from 10,800 in 2017 and 7,926 in 2014 (the year Israel launched Operation Protective Edge in the Gaza Strip), according to Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. More than four million people visit annually, the Ministry said.
For those taking advantage of the stopover in Portugal, TAP offers a network of more than 150 partners who provide hotel discounts, free sightseeing excursions in Lisbon, and even a free bottle of Portuguese wine in participating restaurants. The stopover (but not the excursions) can be booked through flytap.com.
March’s inaugural flight included the presence of the airline’s CEO, Antonoaldo Neves, who discussed with journalists on the flight the airline’s new route to Tel Aviv (which the Portuguese generally spell as “Telavive”). “We built a plan about four years ago to expand the connectivity from the Americas to Europe and we have been adding flights especially to the U.S.,” he said.
But why Israel? “We found out that Tel Aviv is a great market for us because Lisbon is so close, so close to North America and so close to the northeast of Brazil that there is no other way that you can connect to North America from Tel Aviv that is shorter than through Lisbon,” Neves said. And Lisbon is “right in the middle, it’s the perfect stop.”
Freudenheim of the Portuguese Embassy told the crowd gathered at the airport that Israeli investors have been approaching the embassy “almost on a daily basis” to inquire about investment opportunities. In referring to projects such as the twinning wineries, she said, “this is a fascinating new window opening business opportunities which are already making themselves felt on the ground.”
“It’s only the beginning,” Israeli Tourism Ministry director-general Amir Halevi said at the welcome ceremony. Noting the popular Eurovision song contest, which was held in Lisbon in 2018 and will move to Tel Aviv this year, he then made a special request (in jest) that Portugal’s most famous soccer player, “Mr. [Cristiano] Ronaldo,” use his celebrity status to get “more and more tourists” to visit.
The March 31-April 5 trip included two days in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, with a gala party with Israeli travel professionals in Jaffa. There was also a visit to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art and its exhibit, “Statu Quo: Structures of Negotiation,” which traces the delicate balance needed at shared interfaith religious sites such as the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron.
The group then drove southeast to the Dead Sea region, visiting the mountaintop fortress of Masada, embarking on a jeep tour in the Judean Desert and exploring the salt formations in Nachal Sedom, and floating in the Dead Sea. Driving north to the capital, Jerusalem, the group took in a panoramic city view from Jerusalem’s Mt. Scopus before heading to the Old City, home to Jewish, Christian, and Muslim holy sites. They explored its walls by climbing the steps of the Ramparts Walk, and visited the Western Wall and the Jewish Quarter and then Christian holy sites such as Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was traditionally said to be crucified, buried, and resurrected. Many of the participants were curious about Judaism and peppered the Jewish journalists with questions about their faith.
The Portuguese participants on the trip, on the whole, came away with positive impressions of the country. One, Ana Sofia Ribeiro, a journalist who lives in Lisbon, had never been to Israel before. In an email to NJJN after the trip, she called Israel a “destination so heterogeneous that mixes so many cultures of the world, so opposed to each other, but that can live in the same city, in the same temple, in the same streets.” Ribeiro was also struck by the tight security at Ben-Gurion Airport, with interviews on arrival and departure, as well as luggage checks. “But,” she said, “it is for our own safety.”
While not a practicing Christian, Andre de Serpa Soares, TAP’s media officer and spokesperson, told NJJN after the trip that having grown up in a Catholic country like Portugal, “Jerusalem, the Via Dolorosa, the sites of holiness, the Holy Sepulchre, they were and they are very familiar to me.
“Being there made me feel, to the bone, the burden of history and faith carried by Jerusalem, all the conflicts, wars, rise and fall of empires, the multiple religions crossing Jerusalem, and in the end, the deepest faith and true love and understanding that should be common to all people from all faiths and nationalities.”
Gloria Tupinambas, a travel writer from Brazil, wrote, “Israel was always a dream for me, like a professional tourist traveling around the world. My first time in the country was in 2012, like a backpacker. And, now, I loved the opportunity to come back in a press trip.”
What did she like best?
“My favorite place is, without doubts, Jerusalem,” she said. “It’s incredible to see so many religions and cultures together and in peace in a holy land. I don’t have a religion, but I have faith in something above us, guiding our lives.” Noting the dichotomy between Israel’s rich history and thriving present, she added that “in my impression, Jerusalem holds the past of a holy land, and Telavive holds the modernity and the present.”
Like Ribeiro, Tupinambas also questioned the lengthy security measures at the airport and the presence of young armed soldiers on the streets, but acknowledged that she “felt safe all the time.”
Regarding Israel’s Jewish identity, she wrote that “after so many years of persecution, it’s beautiful to see that Jewish people have a home in Israel. A real HOME, where Jewish people can practice their religions, culture and live in peace with families.”
And, adding her own message of conciliation, said, “Let’s put the guns down, let’s leave the assurances and respect all different ways of faith, culture, and lives.”