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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Amid calls from government insiders for Isaac Herzog to take over social affairs in the imminent cabinet reshuffle, the country's tourism minister says he wants to stay right where he is.
"I believe in stability and long-term management and that's what we are trying to do," Herzog said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post this week. "We are trying to build a working plan for the next few years, which is why I am not keen on moving from this portfolio."
Herzog's position at the Tourism Ministry came under threat this week as the Labor Party was informed it would have to give up a cabinet position in return for taking over the social affairs ministry.
Reports that party leader Amir Peretz felt Herzog was the best candidate to make the shift sent shock waves through the tourism industry.
"A new minister in the current crisis in incoming tourism would be a catastrophe that would bury 2007 as a tourism year," said Eli Gonen, president of the Israel Hotels Association.
Similarly, Ami Etgar, chairman of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association called on the Labor Party to drop its consideration of the matter.
Although Herzog's team has prioritized the activities of the ministry, including the completion of a working plan for the year, and is in the middle of negotiating key reforms for the industry with the treasury, these may all be put in jeopardy.
"You know how it works, someone else comes in with a new team who can change everything," he warned.
For the industry, the change would mark a negative start to 2007 as it continues to cautiously count the number of foreign tourist arrivals as it seeks signs of recovery after last year's war in Lebanon.
"We are only expecting to see the start of a recovery around March," noted one tourism professional at the IMTM Tourism Exhibition, which kicked off in Tel Aviv Tuesday. "Don't be fooled by the festive atmosphere [at the exhibition], things are quiet at the moment."
While agreeing with a March outlook for improvement, Herzog maintains an optimistic outlook for the year and has set a target of 2.5 million tourist arrivals for the year, similar to last year's pre-war forecast. Because of the conflict, 2006 ended with 1.8 million arrivals instead.
"If we work properly, this is a realistic goal," Herzog said. "The less people frighten us with another possible round in the North and things like that, the more we will be able to see some tranquility and have a very good year."
While some may be skeptical of these numbers and tourism professionals believe that achieving steady growth beyond 2007 is critically dependant on the industry having a long-term plan, Herzog says the ministry has been working since the war to ensure such a program is implemented.
The ministry, he stressed, has adopted as the basis for its strategy the Ernst & Young report received in November, which presented a five-year plan for the industry. The consulting company outlined the need to prioritize certain cities and target markets, provide incentives for investments in infrastructure, liberalize the aviation industry and develop a multi-year marketing strategy and provide the necessary marketing budget of $50m. per year.
On all fronts, Herzog explained, the ministry has made progress since the report was released in November with its biggest stumbling block coming in the marketing budget, of which the government has only approved 50 percent, to date.
"Due to the lack of cooperation from the Treasury, which is behaving somewhat arrogantly on this issue and I think adverse to our interests, we haven't completed what we wanted for the marketing budget," he said adding, that a meeting with Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson about the funding was scheduled for this week.
As Ernst & Young stressed the need to raise Israel's image in the world, diverting it away from the negative perception of it being a constant conflict zone, the difficulty of the task was seen again last week when "tourist" city Eilat was hit by a suicide bomber for the first time, causing the ministry to repeat its damage control efforts reminiscent of last summer.
Still, Herzog points to the long-term effort to work on Israel's image while alluding to his recent rubbing shoulders with supermodels, sports legends and the like.
"Israel's image in the world is very weak and problematic and we suffer from a major mental block," he said. "We are viewed as a conflict area, which is why I have focused on exposing Israel and linking it to celebrities and name recognition of people and opinion makers."
Even though he enjoys posing with the likes of Bar Rafaeli, Johan Cruyff and Ian Wright to present Israel as the preferred destination of the stars, he has has a much more serious agenda in the cards and hopes he will still be in a position to carry it out by the end of the week.
"Its just the beginning as we're in the job only eight months of which we had the war and no budget," he said. "I think we're doing a lot."