(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Tourism professionals were uneasy with last week's decision by Prime Minister Ehud Olmert to appoint a new tourism minister, expressing concern about a lack of a long-term strategy for the industry.
"The entrance of a new tourism minister heralds another freeze period in the decision-making process for the industry," said Eli Gonen, president of the Israel Hotels Association. "This further illustrates the need to establish a professional national marketing authority, independent of politics, that will ensure continued marketing programs to promote tourism to Israel."
Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog agreed Thursday to leave his position and accept the Social Affairs portfolio as part of a cabinet reshuffle, after initially resisting the move.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post two weeks ago, he expressed frustration about the prospect of leaving the Tourism Ministry, saying the industry needed stability and long-term management.
Herzog took office less than a year ago when incoming tourism was on the rise. But his activities took center stage last summer when the war in Lebanon kept tourists away, causing a crisis for the industry.
The Tourism portfolio has been given to Israel Beiteinu. That raised concerns in some quarters that the party's image, allegedly having racist policies, may rub off on the image-sensitive tourism industry.
MK Estherina Tartman, who is expected to be appointed to the position, was not available for comment.
Industry sources appeared indifferent about who would fill the position. But they expressed frustration at a lack of continuity and government investment in the industry since the war in Lebanon.
"Israel's tourism map is the same map no matter who the minister is," Gonen said. "That's not the question. The question is that we are in the middle of a crisis, and now we are going to have a new administration and leadership in the ministry that will take a few months to learn the subject."
Ami Etgar, director-general of the Israel Incoming Tour Operator Association, said Herzog understood the tourism product and had outlined an order of precedence in the ministry's budget.
Those priorities were largely centered on the recommendations of consulting firm Ernst & Young, including the need for an annual budget of $50 million for a long-term international marketing campaign, which Herzog was in the midst of negotiating with the Finance Ministry. The industry achieved an important first step toward that goal when the Treasury approved a NIS 65m. increase to the Tourism Ministry's marketing budget, raising it to NIS 165m. for 2007.
"This was a positive step, but we told them very loudly that we need the full $50 million," Gonen said. "But more important is to ensure a long-term program. We are expecting a government committee to present a plan on how to implement the Ernst & Young recommendations by the end of March. But now who knows who the director-general of the ministry will be and if this will take shape.
"We feel that we are going to lose this year. It's not going to be an easy 2007, and if we don't wake up, it will affect 2008 as well," Gonen said.