Chinese star Zhang Jingchu stands with her back to Judaism’s Western Wall and Islam’s Al-Aqsa mosque after shooting scenes for the film “Old Cinderella” at Christianity’s Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
“It is amazing that we can end this movie, which is a love story and romantic comedy, here,” she says. “I’m overwhelmed by all the people I’ve encountered.”
It is in Jerusalem, home to sites holy to the three monotheistic religions, that her character, a recently divorced tour guide, refinds her faith in life.
The Chinese production company is filming in Israel after receiving a 300,000 shekel ($83,000) investment from the government that the Tourism Ministry hopes will increase the number of tourists from one of the world’s fastest growing markets.
“We are investing in marketing, hosting journalists and have opened an agency in China. We want to put Israel on the map there,” says Sofia Prizant Pinkas, head of the Tourism Ministry’s China desk.
The star of “Old Cinderella,” who recently played the ambassador’s daughter in “Rush Hour 3,” says her friends were worried when they heard her newest job would take her to Israel.
Jerusalem's Old City, where Zhang was standing, is at the center of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and has seen its share of violence. The Old City is in east Jerusalem, captured by Israel in the 1967 Middle East war and annexed in a move never recognized internationally. Palestinians seek east Jerusalem as the capital of a state.
Zhang said her friends' concern was out of place.
“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,’” says Zhang. “If we show it on the screen, the audience is going to say, maybe next holiday we will go to Israel.”
So impressed was she and the production company by the musicians and artists they met on the street, that they plan to incorporate the encounters into the movie, she says.
Tourism from China to Israel jumped 49 percent to nearly 20,000 visitor arrivals in the past two years, growing nearly twice as fast as the almost 20 percent growth for all of Asia, according to Tourism Ministry figures. The number of visitors from Europe increased by only 3 percent in the same period.
“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.
Israel’s tourist industry was hit by a week-long conflict with Gaza in November 2012, which the ministry said has slowed reservations. The Cabinet this week approved an Open Skies agreement with the European Union that the Tourism Ministry said will raise incoming tourism by hundreds of thousands.
Tourism brings in about 36 billion shekels from indirect and direct revenue, with income from foreign currency standing at $4.8 billion in 2012, according to the Tourism Ministry.
According to Tourism Competitive Intelligence research, last year about 40 million international tourists chose their destination mostly because they saw a film shot in the country. About 8 million Chinese selected their destination according to what they saw in the movies, the Israeli ministry said.
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.”
Last year, according to the China Tourism Academy, 83 million Chinese traveled abroad, spending about $105 billion. The academy expects as many as 94 million Chinese to travel abroad this year. Tourism makes up about 2 percent of Israel’s gross domestic product, which largely depends on exports.
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