The Tourism Ministry held its annual conference in Herzliya on Monday to discuss the future of tourism in Israel and the challenges it faces. It also celebrated outgoing Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov’s four year term.

The conference, which hosted officials of the ministry as well as owners of Israel’s largest hotel chains, travel website founders and other tourism professionals, comprised three consecutive panels.

Amongst the subjects raised during the event, the effect of Israel’s latest military operation on the country’s tourism constituted one of the main topics of discussion.

Last November’s offensive against Gaza caused significant damage to the Israeli tourism industry in general and the South in particular.

According to the ministry’s data, Israel lost over 250,000 tourists following Pillar of Defense, a diminution much felt by tourism service providers on a national scale.

“Israel is a safe place, we know that, but the image abroad is different,” chairman of the marketing committee of the Israel Hotels Association, Ami Federmann told the audience.

“People think there were rockets in Tel Aviv, there were rockets in Jerusalem, so Israel is dangerous.

There is still a general feeling that Israel is unsafe and I think we need to use marketing and campaigns to show it is not,” he said.

At Arkia airlines, CEO Gadi Tepper also said his company had felt the negative effects of the defense operation as many flight reservations were cancelled and no new ones were made during that time.

As recent ministry statistics show that signs of recovery have begun to appear, Director-General Noaz Bar- Nir expressed optimism: “In light of the steps taken by the Tourism Ministry, I estimate that the impact of Operation Pillar of Defense on tourism will be a few percentage points decrease in incoming tourism, perhaps no more than 3-4%. I believe the effects of the operation will cease to be felt after May 2013,” he said.

CEO of Eshet Incoming Tours Amnon Ben-David, however, remains skeptical.

“If there are no dramatic events and Israel is off the news, tourism increases relatively rapidly, but during Pillar of Defense, there were so many cancellations. I believe it is a cumulative effect: There were the talks about Iran just before the operation, and now with Syria and the issue of chemical weapons. This is not a new problem,” he said.

“Israel doesn’t react enough. If you ask me, I think that 10 percent of the cost of each military operation should be contributed to tourism,” Ben-David added.

“A five percent decrease is considered very bad for tourism abroad,” said Israel Hotel Association president Ami Federmann.

“For us it’s even more drastic since Pillar of Defense. We usually recover quickly, but this time it’s not the same.”

“I have told the prime minister and the minister of finance many times, that there should be a system to help when the industry is hurt. Just like in agriculture, when there is no rain, there are no crops and there is a government system to help,” he continued.

“Damage done to an image is a more difficult thing to treat. Tourism is not Iran, it’s normality. Shopping, restaurants, bars all that doesn’t sound serious, but it is.”

“Tourism represents quality of life, but first and foremost it is a business,” Federmann added.

A business indeed. Federmann explained that today, tourism is one of the most job-creating industries in Israel with over 200,000 people employed in the field, and therefore an industry to protect.

To remedy the negative implications of Pillar of Defense, or at least shorten the recovery time, the ministry has taken a few steps. Over recent months it has initiated several international and domestic marketing campaigns to attract tourists back to the region, and has also supplied financial assistance to small businesses and hospitality units in the south.

Beyond the operation, panelists also discussed the future of tourism at the Dead Sea, an area which seems to cry out for development.

“The area of the Dead Sea still doesn’t offer an experience beyond the hotel,” CEO of Isrotel Hotels, Lior Raviv, told the audience, “There should be more activity, attractions, something to do.

“We don’t want the Dead Sea to be Eilat, but we still have to create tourism there, with shopping and dinning. We have to expand in the Dead Sea, people need to have an experience there,” he added.

“What we did in Eilat was a mistake,” Head of the Israel Travel Agents Association Yossi Fattal said at the panel, “We built hotels there, not resorts. What we need to do in the Dead Sea are not vertical construction of hotels, but rather something that takes into consideration the area, something that connects to nature.”

“We are a start up nation, the technology is great, but this is not seen in tourism. We have to create a ‘wow’ that only exists here,” Fattal added.

The conference also touched on subjects such as new trends in accommodation options for travelers as well as the need to lower prices in the industry in order to better compare to other OECD countries and increase the number of visitors.

Much progress has already been made during Misezhnikov’s four years as minister, when tourism in Israel reached an all-time high in the domain. Officials expressed hope that the next government will continue on the same path.

“Our goal for the future is to bring another five million tourists to Israel by 2015 and I believe it can be done,” Misezhnikov said, “all there is left to do is to make sure tourism doesn’t go under a cutting knife to fix the deficit.”

“I had a 45-minute conversation with the prime minister before the elections and I believe he understands the huge potential there is here,” he said.

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