Over seven years ago, when Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat was first elected, he sought to maximize the potential of a city that “had it all, but had nothing,” to become an international tourist destination, drawing 10 million visitors a year.
However, with just over 3 million tourists visiting Israel as of last year, that vision remains out of reach.
At The Jerusalem Post Diplomatic Conference on Wednesday, Ilanit Melchior, tourism director for the Jerusalem Development Authority, said Barkat’s vision, while challenging, is indeed viable.
“Barkat knew the city had this potential of making it the most amazing, innovative international city, but for some reason, for many years, it stayed the same,” said Melchior.
“It was a city that was perceived as a city of stone, a city where nothing was moving, a city of conflict, a city where unfortunately, a lot of terrorist attacks are happening.”
In a coordinated effort to turn that image around, Melchior said she has worked closely with Barkat and the municipality for the past seven years.
“We took different methodologies, and were thinking: What are the competitive advantages of the city of Jerusalem, and how can we take those competitive advantages and make them our selling point?” she recalled.
While conceding that the capital is indeed a “complicated and challenging city,” Melchior noted that it is nonetheless inhabited by “a wonderful community, which is a mixture of so many different kinds of people who love their city.”
“So, we took this passion of what we called ‘the creative class,’ and we used it as positive momentum for the city,” she continued.
Still, noting the ongoing challenges presented by the capital’s unique security considerations, Melchior said that as tourism director, her greatest challenge remains how to turn Barkat’s vision of attracting 10 million tourists a reality.
“It was not an easy selling point,” she said. “Yes, the Jews are coming here, and maybe a few Christians, but the one thing that I learned was that there was an opportunity to attract a younger population, that for some reason, this city was not [attractive] to.”
To reverse this, Melchior said the Jerusalem Development Authority and municipality focused on how to change the “misperception.”
One of the most successful initiatives, she said, has been making the capital a desirable location by focusing on its burgeoning start-up culture, as well as a film location, which has since drawn productions by Hollywood luminaries, including Richard Gere and Natalie Portman.
“Suddenly, The New York Times is writing that Jerusalem is one of the leading cities for hi-tech and bio-tech,” she said.
“All the international [publications] began describing Jerusalem as a vibrant, sexy, innovative city.”
Moreover, as the world experiences the waves of terrorism that Jerusalem has long contended with, Melchior said she has found a “second career” by advising other cities in Europe and elsewhere about how to deal with the epidemic and still thrive.
“Unfortunately, a lot of nations over the past year and a half have been suffering from terrorism – Brussels, Copenhagen, Paris and Istanbul – and I have been able to help them to develop their own tool box to deal with those crises,” she said.
“Every crisis is an opportunity, so maybe it’s not in my hands to fight terrorism – it’s in the hands of the government and the police – but it is in our fate to decide how to react, how to make sure that we bring things back to normal, and provide a sense of security,” she said.
“Most importantly,” Melchior continued, “we must broadcast this message without being ashamed about it, and without being afraid to talk about it. That we put it on the table – but at the same time, do a lot of things to make sure that we constantly present a vibrant image of the city of Jerusalem moving forward.”