Stas Misezhnikov is Israel’s tourism minister. When he took over the Tourism Ministry nearly four years ago, the tourist industry was going through a difficult period. Incoming tourism amounted to an annual 2.7 million, and there were fears that the numbers would stagnate.

But this has not happened.

In 2011, incoming tourism reached 3.5 million, and this year it is expected to rise by a few more percentage points.

But despite the rise in tourism in the past few years and the expected rise in the future, incoming tourism has not changed a lot and is continuing on the well-trod grid of religiously oriented tourism.

In a talk we had several years ago when Misezhnikov was chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, we discussed the state of the Israeli economy and the issue of incoming tourism. He said that more emphasis should be placed on SSS tourism – sun, sea and sand. But today, the emphasis is still on religion.

“The emphasis is still on religion,” Misezhnikov explains, “because we have a distinct advantage. We have the uniqueness of the holy land. Israel is the land of the Bible. We have the major holy sites of Judaism, Christianity and Islam. These do not exist anywhere else in the world, and it would be foolish not to take advantage of that. Consequently, in our marketing campaigns, we put an emphasis on the religious element,” he says.

“Nevertheless,” he continues, “we conduct a very varied campaign. Besides emphasizing the religious aspect, we also highlight the fact that we are a holiday recreational destination with sun and surf. But in this particular aspect, we compete with other countries in the region such as Greece Turkey, Egypt and Jordan,” he says.

“However, when promoting the Western Wall or the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, we have no competitors. And we promote it in such a way as to combine it with history and culture. The people who come to visit these sites are not all religiously inclined, they are not all pilgrims. Many are vacationing tourists and, as such, we promote these sites in the same way the UK promotes the Tower of London, Spain the Alhambra, Greece the Acropolis and Italy the Coliseum,” he says.

“But,” he continues, “we do not neglect our other attractions. Despite the SSS competition from Sharm el Sheikh in Egypt and Aqaba in Jordan, I decided to invest heavily in promoting Eilat as a holiday and vacation destination. In 2011, over one million tourists visited Eilat. Hotel capacity was 70 percent, and this is due in no small part to the resources we are devoting to promote this Red Sea resort city,” says Misezhnikov.

The latest figures published by Israel’s Central Statistics Bureau show that incoming tourism is growing. Is this trend sustainable, given the continuing global economic crisis and the instability in neighboring countries?

Despite the global economic downturn that is also affecting Israel, we have managed to maintain a constant rise in the number of incoming tourists.

Despite the unrest in neighboring countries and the decline in tourism to the other countries in the region, we have achieved record numbers of incoming tourists.

It has not been easy. We have increased market activities in countries less affected by the economic downturn such as India, the Russian Federation, Ukraine and other Eastern and Central European countries. We have also strengthened our relations with retail tourist operators. These policies have been successful, and we hope they will allow us to continue to increase incoming tourism.

According to the Tourism Ministry’s master plan, by 2015 we will have reached l5 million incoming tourist, a 40% rise from the expected 3.5 million plus in 2012 and an annual rise of 12%. Is that a realistic assessment?

Up to the onset of the global economic downturn, this was a feasible assessment. You have to take into account that Greece experienced a drop of 11% in incoming tourism in the first half of 2012, while the corresponding numbers in Israel have risen slightly. We are optimistic and believe that the five million mark is just a matter of time.

To reach that mark, we need an extra 19,000 hotel rooms. In 2011 we authorized grants of NIS 204 million to build additional hotel rooms, and this year we are authorizing a similar amount. In addition, we have authorized grants of NIS 450 million to build additional hotel rooms and attractions in the Dead Sea area.

A rise in tourism is very good news for the local economy and for Israel in general. A satisfied, happy tourist is good public relations.

It also has a very salutary effect on the economy. In 2011 the income from tourism amounted to NIS 33 billion (approximately $9.5 billion). The number of people employed in tourism in 2011 amounted to 160,000, an increase of over 10% since 2009.

The tourist industry is a very important employer. It has its high paid top executives with their MBAs and other university degrees. But it is one of the few industries in Israel that can provide employment to unskilled labor.

Israel is a very advanced technological society. Most of the labor needs of the economy are for the skilled. But not all the seven million plus Israelis are skilled. A large tourist sector can provide employment to unskilled labor and, in so doing, resolve some pressing social problems.

We believe that by making use of existing facilities, namely enlarging existing hotels, it will be possible to build an additional 10,000 hotel rooms quickly.

We are fully aware of the changes taking place in the global tourist industry.

The advent of new low-cost airline carriers has introduced a new breed of tourists. They require modest hotels, and we intend to supply their needs.

Elections are in the air. In a few months we may have a new tourism minister. If so, how would you sum up your tenure as minister of tourism? What were your most important achievements? And if you were to continue for another four years, what would you want to accomplish?

In my opinion, elections are not just around the corner, and I have many more months as minister of tourism. But during the past three years plus, our most important achievement was enhancing the awareness of the importance of tourism as a means to achieve economic growth.

Another important achievement was increasing incoming tourism during the past two years despite the strong headwinds -- global economic recession, the Arab Spring, which has caused turmoil in the region, etc.

We have also succeeded in turning Tel Aviv into a major global tourist destination. We have also developed new tourist destinations, such as wine tourism and ethnic tourism with the Druse, Circassian and Arab communities.

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