(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Israel has the sun; it has beaches, and beautiful girls in bikinis. But all of those assets, says Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov - which are available elsewhere, and often at a lower cost - are "by-products," and not "the reason why" most tourists come here.
"What we have that no one else has is the Holy Land, with Jerusalem at its center," the former marketing manager adds this week in an interview with The Jerusalem Post, ahead of Monday's arrival of Pope Benedict XVI.
Taking a cue from his profession, the 40-year-old, secular father of three, who immigrated from Moscow in 1982, says that the country needs to market itself directly to select groups, such as evangelicals and Catholics, to spur tourism in a time of worldwide economic recession.
About 10,000 pilgrims are expected to accompany the pope on his Middle East tour - which kicks off in Jordan and includes the Palestinian territories - with thousands more expected in the wake of his pilgrimage, although the exact numbers are uncertain.
Despite the anticipated boost in the number of Catholic tourists this year as a result of the five-day papal visit, Misezhnikov claims that the hundreds of millions of largely supportive evangelical Christians around the world - including an estimated 70 million in the United States - still constitute the biggest tourism potential for the country. It's a potential, he asserts, "which we have barely tapped into."
A whopping 70 percent of the 1.8 million Christian tourists who visited last year were evangelicals, he says.
In all, a record-breaking 3 million people visited last year, surpassing the previous all-time high in 2000, when Pope John Paul II visited the Holy Land.
But with the gloomy global economic condition, and the fallout from the month-long war against Hamas in Gaza this winter, the number of tourists has fallen 25% in the first quarter of 2009.
Misezhnikov, a member of Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman's hawkish Israel Beiteinu Party, says that as a result of the world economic crisis, it would be a "huge accomplishment" if Israel gets 2.5 million tourists this year, adding that he hopes to get back up to 3 million by next year.
He says that the expected boost in tourism this year as a result of the papal visit will necessarily be dented by the global economic slowdown.
"Even a very devout Catholic who wants to come in the wake of the papal visit will not be able to do so if he doesn't have the money."
He adds that the country itself was unprepared to host many more than 3 million tourists a year, due to a shortage of hotel rooms, noting that four hotels are being built, including two in Jerusalem in the next two years.
SEEKING TO hone in on what he sees as the three key tourist groups - evangelicals, Catholics and Russian Orthodox - Misezhnikov is planning a worldwide tour this summer to meet with key evangelical and Catholic leaders this summer to promote tourism.
The evangelical leg of the tour, which is being organized with the help of the Knesset's Christian Allies Caucus - the increasingly-influential cross-party parliamentary group which works with predominantly evangelical Christian supporters of Israel around the world - will take him to the US, Korea and the Philippines, and the Catholic leg to Poland, Italy, Spain and France.
An additional natural focus is his native Russia, from which tourism has skyrocketed hundreds-fold since Israel lifted visa requirements. Some 360,000 Russians visited last year, compared to 60,000 the year before, with only a small drop this year due to economic malaise.
Another one is Brazil, to where El Al now has direct flights.
Misezhnikov concedes that a flare-up in the current lull in the conflict with the Palestinians can always adversely affect tourism, but says that ceding territory has only brought war, and not peace.
Despite the adverse impact of the economic slowdown on the tourism industry, he says that Israel was hoping that its evangelical friends would visit the country to ease the local impact. "A visit to the Holy Land can help Israel out of the crisis," he said.
In the meantime, he is fighting his own battles: seeking an increase in his ministry's NIS 460 million annual budget at a time of cost-cutting measures. "There is no other sector in the country - including hi-tech - which provides so much employment," Misezhnikov says, noting that each 100,000 tourists provides 4,000 jobs and brings in NIS 200 million to the economy.
"We have to invest in the engines of growth in the economy - which tourism is - to get out of the recession and spur jobs and growth," he says. "Tourism brings us both."
WHILE THE minister demurs that he is seeking religious tourism, as Rabbi Benny Elon actively courted during his own tenure in the post, Misezhnikov is essentially courting faith-based tourism.
Reflecting on a visit this week to the Church of the Holy Sepulcher ahead of the papal visit, Misezhnikov said that a billion Catholics are connected to the stones at the Jerusalem holy site, where Christian tradition holds Jesus was buried.
"What we have to do is realize that aspiration," he says, when asked about Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat's goal of getting 10 million tourists to Jerusalem in the next decade.
"If we will this potential, it is no dream," he concluded.