Earlier this week, the Jerusalem Hotel Association and the Association of Tour Guides sponsored a press conference at the Olive Tree Hotel to deliver a very alarming message. According to their figures, the second war in Lebanon and the lack of ministerial support for tourism has already caused considerable damage, and that damage is likely to get worse. Should the government continue to refuse to provide support for the tourist industry, officials warned, tourism in 2007 and 2008 will drop from the predicted 2.9 million and 3.3 million tourists to 1.5 million and 1.9 million, respectively. "If the government does respond to these figures and does decide to launch a serious marketing campaign, we might see a slight improvement," says Rafi Praver, deputy manager of the Hotel Association. "The numbers could rise to 2.1 million in 2007 and to 2.6 million in 2008. This is not enough, but it could save us from a total loss." But the participants complained about more than the lack of government support. "There is a conspiracy of silence around this crisis in tourism," accuses Praver, who is the owner of a hotel in Jerusalem and was once the Tourism Ministry's representative in the United States. "It will soon lead to firing employees. In Jerusalem, we might have to fire as many as 4,000 to 5,000 people." "During the recent period of Jewish holidays, we saw lots of tourists on the streets of Jerusalem," says Yonatan Harpaz, head of the Jerusalem Hotel Association. "But it was much less than expected. And we can't measure the achievements in one or two weeks, we have to see the whole year, the whole picture." The participants all agreed that the government, and more precisely, the Tourism and Finance ministries, hold the keys to the solution to the problem. "They act as if the war in Lebanon had no effect," Praver says. "All over the world, people saw pictures of the war on their televisions - the rockets, the bombs, the people in shelters. Of course we know that the war was in the North and not in Jerusalem, and that it was miles and miles away from here. But people miles and miles away truly believe that's what was happening throughout the country." He continues, "In Egypt, after the terrorist bombings in Sinai, the Egyptian government understood immediately what was at stake. They understood that without decisive action - public relations, marketing, investment in advertising - they could say good-bye to the huge profits that tourism was bringing their country. So can someone tell me why the Israeli government cannot understand and do what the Egyptian government can understand and do?" Danny Biran, head of the Association of Tour Guides, spoke even more harshly. "We can do arts and crafts with all the detailed plans and proposals we sent to the Tourism Ministry suggesting save the situation and what should be done. They didn't even bother to look at them. We don't want charity, we just want them to treat us as what we are - an important economic industry. All we ask is that they invest in this incoming tourism, in order to make the best of it. We can create jobs and also, as a byproduct, tourism is a very good way to improve Israel's image in the world. "Just image," he continues, "if CNN and the other big media organizations showed, instead of pictures of war or terror, beautiful advertising of tourist sites." Adds Ariela Shmida, owner and manager of a hotel in Jerusalem, "Israel is not very well-loved in the world, but the government could sell Jerusalem alone, separately, as a city that is important for millions of Christians in the world." The vulnerability of employment in the tourist industry is one of the most problematic aspects of the current crisis. In 2000, some 6,500 were employed in the hotel industry. Nearly 4,000 were fired during the intifada, but by the eve of this summer's war, the numbers of employees had climbed back to approximately 3,000. "Our figures indicate that at least 40 percent of these people will lose their jobs in the coming days or weeks," Harpaz and Shmida warn. Says Haim Rogatka, manager of Mini Israel and head of the association of tourist site operators, "We have about 200 tourist sites in the country. We employ about 8,000 people. In the coming days we will have to fire approximately 2,500 of them, because we don't expect enough tourists in the coming months." A participant who requested not to be identified says, "All of this is true. But perhaps this could be a good occasion to rethink the outrageous prices at those sites - besides the tickets, which are not cheap unless you come in a group, everything you get there is unbelievably expensive, for no reason. An average family - and some of these sites are especially geared to families with children - could easily end the day paying NIS 400 to NIS 500. This is insane." The participant continued to note that while the government's responsibility "is clear," the lack of "cheap and decent hotels," such as the kind you can easily find in Europe and the USA, is also part of the problem. "When you only invest in four or five star hotels, you shouldn't be surprised to find out that you only get the rich tourists. The others will go only to the cheaper places in east Jerusalem or they won't come at all, preferring to stay in Jordan or Egypt." Deputy Mayor Yigal Amedi, who holds the culture and tourism portfolio in the Jerusalem Municipality, contends that his presence at the press conference was "living proof of the deep concern with which the mayor and the entire municipal administration regard the situation. We believe that tourism is important for the city and thus we have already invested large budgets in promoting various events throughout the year, together with the municipality's auxiliary company, Ariel. But nothing can replace the government and its budgets. MK Yoram Marciano (Labor), head of the tourism lobby in the Knesset, announced that he has "managed to convince" the head of the Knesset committee, Ruhama Avraham, to convene a special emergency meeting. Neither the Tourism Ministry nor the Finance Ministry responded to In Jerusalem's queries.

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