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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
You can't blame the folks at the Tourism Ministry for feeling chipper lately. They're coming off a superb year in which incoming tourism exceeded all expectations, jumping from 1.5 million to just under 2 million. The Central Bureau of Statistics is predicting another 20 percent bump this year, but the ministry is confident that it can hit a cool 3 million.
What's gotten into them?
"In the past year, under the direction of Minister Avraham Hirschson, we have begun to mimic the private sector," explains ministry Director-General Eli Cohen. "Rather than looking at tourism from a governmental perspective, we are looking at it from an economic perspective."
First and foremost, that means a focus on what the bottom line means for Israel.
"Around here we keep in mind the following as if it were our shema yisrael," Cohen continues: "that every 100,000 tourists inject $200 million to the economy and provide 4,000 service jobs - bus drivers, cab drivers, hotel workers, etc. These are jobs, by the way, that could really help those in the periphery."
To create those jobs, Cohen and his colleagues need to entice tourists. A lot of tourists, actually: a task force appointed by Hirschson is trying to determine how Israel can attract 8 million tourists a year by 2010.
"It's realistic," Cohen insists. "It's possible. We just need to know how to market the product that is Israel."
THE NEW business-like approach at the ministry, he explains, first meant a re-think about where to spend the budget.
Last year, he says, "We decided to close our offices in South Africa and Australia. Why? In terms of costs, they weren't very expensive, but when you look at the statistics - and for a long time, we didn't do this - the number of tourists from those countries (less than 20,000 per year, each) doesn't justify the cost of running an office there. Meanwhile, in a country like Russia, from which we had 60,000 tourists in 2005 and in 2006 we expect 200,000 to come, we don't even have an office there."
You can expect an update to that situation soon, he promises.
"We need to ask, where are the numbers? From where can we bring the highest number of tourists, for the good of the State of Israel? Where can we invest a dollar and get the highest return on it?"
The bang-for-the-buck question has brought about at least two new approaches in the way the ministry markets Israel.
One is a direct appeal to America's Evangelical Christians, with television commercials on The 700 Club that feature Evangelical icon Pat Robertson himself. And, instead of merely promoting Israel, these ads now include the "hard sell" suggestion that viewers "call now" to plan their tour packages.
These ads, appealing to those who long to "walk where Jesus walked," reinforce the notion of an Israel that, despite its great advances in hi-tech fields, remains little more than an expanded version of the Jerusalem of biblical times.
While the Holy Land motif is a powerful draw to millions worldwide, Cohen warns that the unique character of Jerusalem can sometimes work against the interests of tourism - especially when it represents the political and military crises in Israel and vis- -vis the Palestinians. And whether Jerusalem symbolizes the solemn seat of religion or the focus of diplomatic tension, there is one thing that it definitely does not represent: fun.
The other, and until now less sought-after group of tourists that the ministry is pursuing is the kind that want to enjoy themselves. So the Tourism Ministry is showing the world an Israel in which Jerusalem plays little to no part - an Israel dominated by the sun, sand and sex appeal of Tel Aviv and Eilat.
"Europeans think Israel is a very staid country, with just a desert and camels, where people come home to closed window shades and simply have dinner and do nothing else," says Cohen. "And we have contributed to this perception. Look at the images that the Tourism Ministry has used until now," he says, calling up one of the ministry's older Web sites. "The walls of the Old City, a jeep and a camel..."
Not one camel appears in the ministry's major British ad campaign that has recently hit the air. It's just a well-toned young woman in a barely-there bikini, sauntering through a sun-splashed paradise along Israel's coasts. Jerusalem does not appear at all.
"Britons aren't interested in coming here to see the religious sites," Cohen explains. "They want to enjoy our beaches and our bars, maybe a little bit of archeology. Just don't sell them religion."
ANOTHER IMPORTANT element in the ministry's new approach is the broad implementation of an "open skies" policy in Europe and beyond.
"The main hurdles to incoming tourism are the [low] number of flights to Israel and the cost of flights to Israel," says Cohen. "Until recently, it was this country's policy to protect Israeli airlines - that is, a single airline," he says, referring to El Al. "This meant that the number of tourists who could come to Israel was limited, and the cost of a ticket - if you could get one - was four or five times the real price of the ticket."
Allowing more flights to and from Israel and from more carriers would mean more opportunities for tourists to visit Israel, Cohen notes. It would also mean competition among airlines that should keep prices down, in turn encouraging more tourism.
Cohen promises that future agreements with European countries will lead to low-cost airlines being given the opportunity to fly to Israel, which should provide even more affordable options in Europe. In addition to making European destinations cheaper for Israelis, that would make Israel a more affordable vacation option for Eastern Europeans - a growing market that the Tourism Ministry is definitely targeting.
Whether they come largely depends on the continuation of relative calm here, a fickle situation that Cohen knows is impossible to assume.
"It's such a strange thing," he says. "The bombing in Netanya [in December] didn't lead to any cancellations. But the bombings in London [last July] caused cancellations in Israel from the British! In Israel, we always have to prepare for the worst; we know we live in a very fragile situation. We never know what can happen in another year or two."
Assuming the relative quiet continues for the foreseeable future, what kind of country will tourists find when they arrive? After all, not every place in Israel is as pristine as the spots providing the background for the bikini model in the new advertisement.
Cohen has previously criticized the Jerusalem municipality for not doing enough to make the city appealing to tourists, in terms of cleanliness in particular. He is also concerned about pollution on Israel's beaches. So the ministry is getting tough: it takes care of those who take care of their tourists, and snubs those who don't.
"We explain to municipalities and local councils that tourism is a business and they need to treat it as such. We also tell them that if they don't make the necessary efforts, they won't receive funds from the Tourism Ministry. In the case of Jerusalem, what they missed out on [in terms of funding], Tel Aviv profited from instead. That's our message: Get to work."