It’s two days after the Gaza flotilla raid, and many of the shops in the Arab market are closed for a protest. Tourists are still steadily streaming through the doors of the Jaffa Gate Tourism Information Center, but more slowly than usual.

“It’s been a little quieter around here lately,” says Jennifer, a longtime volunteer at the city’s only information center.

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“If there’s nothing to buy,” she laughs, “then no one’s outside.”


As the dust begins to settle around the flotilla events, Jerusalem is in the midst of starting its new public relations campaign, “Something Good Is Happening in Jerusalem.” The municipality is pushing aggressively to recast the city as a cultural destination, whose international importance in the world of art and music is just as celebrated as the city’s historical and religious significance.

This being Jerusalem, a few problems have cropped up.

“Jerusalem’s brand is undermined by troubles and how the media portrays it,” says Foster George, a tourist from London in Jerusalem for a week as he strolls through Jaffa Gate for the first time.

“The image of Jerusalem is so tied to Israel abroad which, unfortunately, especially now, is not so positive,” adds another tourist, Kate Engberg from Gothenburg, Sweden.

The Jaffa Gate center, which is run by the Tourism Ministry, serves between 400 and 600 tourists on an average day. This number can reach up to a few thousand during summer weekends and Christmas, the Old City’s busy seasons. “There are literally days when the door doesn’t shut,” Jennifer says. The information center gives out 8,000 to 10,000 maps per month and offers advice and brochures in English, Spanish, French, Russian, Italian, German and Hebrew.

An American who fell in love with the city, Jennifer is at the center six days a week, handing out maps, answering questions and freely dispensing advice from her wealth of knowledge about the country, including day trip suggestions, how much to tip at restaurants and dealing with Middle Eastern culture. She’s been instrumental in making connections with Lonely Planet and organizing translations of brochures into the most requested languages. She’s even been known to take tourists out for dinner or show them around her favorite sites.

“I don’t do that all that time, but sometimes I know who needs a little more info, and I can show them places they wouldn’t go to on their own,” she says.

On the front lines with the tourists, the employees support the municipality’s marketing and branding efforts but believe that improving the tourism experience is what will lead to truly changing the impressions of the city. Jennifer and the other volunteers and employees listen and smile every day as tourists complain about getting ripped off by taxi drivers, never finding the tourist services they need and being harassed by shop owners and unlicensed tour guides in the Old City.

“They expect this to be a holy city, and it’s not,” says Jennifer. “But that’s why I’m here... I want them to leave here with a good taste in their mouth.”

Hilik Bar is at the forefront of Jerusalem’s marketing campaign, as the deputy mayor in charge of the tourism and the foreign relations portfolios.

“Jerusalem is actually the anchor of tourism to Israel as a whole,” he explains, adding that 90 percent of tourists come through the city at some point on their trip (the Tourism Ministry says that number is closer to 80%).

“We discovered that the tourist experience was not really good in Jerusalem, that the city wasn’t tourist-friendly,” says Bar.

When Bar waxes poetic about tourism possibilities in Jerusalem, he barely takes a breath as the words pour forth. His patter is obviously practiced and buffed to perfection, but it is delivered with such earnestness that you can’t help but be caught up in the vision of the Jerusalem of the future: sleek tourist kiosks spewing personalized maps for an evangelical Korean pilgrim; friendly city representatives who bend over backward to help a German backpacker find a place to live for a month; public toilets scattered throughout the downtown area; well-placed signs so no one gets lost in the narrow alleys of the Old City. It all sounds so perfect and easy. With a new, successful brand, of course 3.4 billion people would want to come to Jerusalem!

The 3.4 billion figure that Bar comes back to again and again refers to Jerusalem’s potential to attract all the Christians, Jews and Muslims who consider this one of the most important cities in the world. For now, the municipality is setting its sights a little lower: The goal is 10 million visitors annually within the next 10 years. For this to happen, the city’s hotel rooms need to double, from 10,000 rooms to 20,000, and tourism infrastructure needs a giant overhaul. For every 100,000 additional tourists in Jerusalem, Bar calculates that the city gains an additional 4,000 jobs in the tourism and hospitality sector, so improving tourism will have far-reaching effects on many sectors of the city.

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AS PART of building the new brand, the city is reinventing itself in four distinct but related areas: improving tourist services; reaching out to rapidly growing sectors like Christian pilgrims and Russian tourists; attracting more conventions; and recruiting tourists to act as Jerusalem’s ambassadors, harnessing the hasbara spirit that Israel’s reputation so desperately needs.

“In everything we do, we try to think like a tourist,” says Bar.

More municipality-run tourism information centers like the center at Jaffa Gate and more foreign language speakers to answer tourists’ questions are the keys to helping visitors navigate the city better, the municipality found after almost a year of internal studies and research. Plans for more municipality-run information booths are in the works, but in the meantime they’re working on a digital version – 10 tourist kiosks with up-to-date information about city sites that will also let visitors book a hotel room or order theater tickets. The city earmarked NIS 2 million to develop the kiosks and hopes to have them in place by 2011.

In addition to improving tourist services, aggressive marketing to attract the tourists represents a new strategy for the city. Christian and Russian tourists, two of the fastest-growing segments of visitors to Jerusalem, will be the first to see the new campaign in action.

Actively working to attract Christian pilgrims is a new initiative for Mayor Nir Barkat’s administration. The previous administration caved in to pressure from the Eda Haredit, the extreme haredi group which is concerned that accepting money from evangelicals could eventually lead to conversion. It did not encourage any type of interaction between the municipality and Christian groups, even turning down donations.

Barkat made his support of Christian-Jewish cooperation known by accepting a NIS 13.5 million donation from the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews, which collects donations from evangelicals to fight poverty in the city.

Bar says he respects the previous administration, but can’t understand why it would turn away tourists – and dollars – from Jerusalem. Christian pilgrims represent perhaps the biggest sector of tourists interested in coming to Jerusalem, but to reach them the city is going to have to initiate a more targeted marketing campaign, highlighting its new support of evangelical tour groups and conventions. The city has already hosted two Christian mega-events for Russian and Korean evangelicals, each time filling 2,000 hotel rooms with pilgrims for three nights.

Charley J. Levine, president and founder of Lone Star Communications, one of the largest public relations firms in Jerusalem, refers to these groups and the perennial Jewish visitors as “low-hanging fruit” – the most natural and loyal markets, who are growing exponentially and generally won’t be put off by whatever political situation Israel is wading through.

But the municipality hopes to move beyond this low-hanging fruit to attract the big bucks, conventions, a sure-fire way to fill up hotel rooms. According to Bar, before the second intifada, Jerusalem was one of the top five cities in the world to host conventions. Since 2002, the city has sunk lower than 50th. The most obvious benefit of marketing is tourism, but Bar hopes for a new city brand geared toward attracting the conventions as well. The conventions help Jerusalem economically by attracting potential business investors and cementing Jerusalem’s image as a city that can support international commerce.

THE MUNICIPALITY’S biggest branding push is to make the city an international cultural destination. The hope is that soon tourists will be pouring into the city during festivals to hear jazz echoing through the Valley of the Cross at a free concert in Sacher Park or to watch colored strobe lights bouncing off 3,000-year-old walls at the Light Festival.

“We’re building the cultural businesses that will bring tourism because if there is culture, economic opportunities will come to the city,” explains Deputy Mayor Pepe Alalu, who holds the cultural portfolio. The summer calendar is certainly chock full of cultural events, such as the Hutzot Hayotzer craft fair, the Wine Festival, the Israel Festival, concerts at Kikar Safra every Friday and summer concerts at the Sultan’s Pool featuring such major Israeli stars as Idan Raichel, Kobi Perez and Ehud Banai.

“There’s an Israeli saying that Haifa is for working, Tel Aviv is for playing and Jerusalem is for praying,” Alalu says. “But we’re trying to make Jerusalem a place to play because making it a cultural place brings tourists, which brings work.”

He admits that convincing international artists to come to Jerusalem instead of Tel Aviv is certainly a challenge, partly because the facilities are much smaller: No city venue can hold more than 7,000 people.

The cultural events are excellent for attracting tourists. The workers at Jaffa Gate say they’ve never seen the Old City so full at night as it was during the Light Festival. But one of the main reasons for the cultural emphasis, Alalu says, is to convince the younger generation to remain in the city.

The municipality is well aware that many Israelis think of Jerusalem as too haredi and too expensive, as young people flee to the Tel Aviv metro area in search of better jobs and cheaper living accommodations.

“Jerusalem is an old city and a religious city but also a young city with a lot of culture and museums and 40,000 students studying here,” Bar says. “We have to improve the image of Jerusalem first to the Israeli citizens so they understand that Jerusalem is a place worth living in.”

BRANDING A city isn’t easy, warns Bill Baker, the author of Destination Branding for Small Cities and the president of Total Destination Management, a PR company that focuses on marketing small cities. Don’t call it an “advertising campaign,” he says. “Developing a true, sustainable brand identity for a city is long term. It takes a long time to change people’s perceptions and attitudes toward places.”

And it takes a lot of money as well, which the municipality is realizing for the first time. Previous budgets have allocated no more than NIS 3 million for marketing Jerusalem to tourists, Bar says. But the current budget has more than NIS 35 million dedicated to marketing – NIS 18 million from the municipality, matched by an additional NIS 17 million from the Tourism Ministry.

“Some cities generically or organically evoke very positive associations and have very powerful messages,” Baker continues. He cites Paris and Dubai as examples of cities with strong brands that public relations campaigns have easily promoted. Johannesburg is another city to watch, with its leverage of the World Cup, despite a complicated political situation.

A city’s brand also needs to start at a grassroots level. “Engage the local constituents because they have to buy into it,” Baker says.

“Stay away from politics because you won’t find any agreement across the board,” says Levine. “Branding is about finding consensus items around which you can build support and excitement.”

Sometimes, the separation between tourism marketing and politics isn’t always possible. The British Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) prompted a hail of criticism from Jewish groups in April after blocking a Tourism Ministry advertisement that depicted the Western Wall and the Temple Mount as part of a four-day itinerary suggestion. A complaint was filed claiming that these sites are located in east Jerusalem, which is not part of the State of Israel. The ASA reviewed the case and upheld the complaint, finding that the advertisement breached its “truthfulness” clause.


“We understood, however, that the status of the occupied territory of the West Bank was the subject of much international dispute, and because we considered that the ad implied that the part of east Jerusalem featured in the image was part of the State of Israel, we concluded that the ad was likely to mislead,” ASA said in a statement.

The Tourism Ministry requested an independent review of the decision as allowed by ASA guidelines, which is currently under way.

“Do you know how many millions of dollars the tourists leave in the Muslim and Christian and Armenian shops every year? Millions of dollars!” Bar exclaims when he hears about the ASA ruling. “So why do you hurt them with this cheap propaganda against coming to Israel because of the political situation?”

But there are times when the political situation becomes so overwhelming that it’s impossible to ignore. “As long as something like [the Gaza flotilla] is hanging over you, you can’t expect to say, ‘Disregard that. Let’s get on with your holidays,’” says Rafi Caplin, a London-based consultant who works for Longwood Holidays and has been selling Israel trips for 35 years. He says he expects people to hold back for a few days from booking Israel trips with the company, which specializes in Middle Eastern destinations, but overall believes that the negative press from the flotilla will have “limited effect” on travel plans to the area.

“It’s very challenging to focus attention on things that extend beyond the political and military conflict,” explains Levine. “The images that are bombarding much of the world through the media on a regular basis, especially this past week, basically just fill up the minds of viewers and readers all over the world.”

Combating those images and perceptions to promote the brand of Jerusalem that the municipality wants the world to see is another type of war for the country.

“We’re used to being attacked every day, not just by rockets but by words,” says Joel Leyden, a PR expert who focuses on on-line marketing and used to represent the Tourism Ministry. When it comes to on-line marketing, Israel is always at a disadvantage because numerically, the Palestinian cause can draw from a much larger pool of supporters. In light of the flotilla events last week, Leyden says, the municipality has to understand that “we’ll never win the numbers war, but if we’re smart and we’re creative, we can break through the noise to get the facts out, to get the truth out, to get our messages out.

“We have two wars right now,” Leyden continues. “One war is a defensive war. We have to defend Israel’s good name and good reputation. At the same time, we have to pursue and go on with a normal tourism campaign.”

PART OF building a successful Jerusalem brand and tourism campaign, the experts agree, is getting everyone united behind a common campaign or ideal. In Jerusalem, getting different people to agree on anything, even as harmless as a slogan, can be an insurmountable challenge.

“The mayor always says, ‘Name a conflict and we’ve got it in Jerusalem!’” laughs Bar. “Somehow we need to make everyone – Christian, Muslim, Jewish and the different streams of  Judaism – understand that none of us has the privilege or the right to do something that will hurt the image or the name of this city, which is what we’re doing now.”

While the challenge might seem impossible, there is one thing that just might be able to unite every different population segment in Jerusalem: money. Jewish Birthright participants, Christian pilgrims or convention attendees – they’re all carrying credit cards in their wallets.

“Haredim in Mea She’arim definitely want a lot of tourists to come here because it helps their shops and stores sell things; Arab shop owners and Muslim shop owners in the Old City want tourists,” says Levine. “You can take it group by group by group, but everyone is supportive of the more tourists, the merrier.”

But any branding initiative will take some time to trickle down to the tourists.

“My choice to come here wasn’t influenced by any marketing,” says Mark Skelton, 23, an NGO worker from England now working in Malaysia, who arrived in Jerusalem last week on a solo tour of the Middle East. “I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered Jerusalem before outside of the news.”

Bar hopes this will change as the Something Good Is Happening in Jerusalem campaign picks up momentum and the aggressive marketing starts to pan out, creating an image of a cosmopolitan, international Jerusalem that is holy and trendy at the same time.

“Jerusalem is the most important brand and the most famous brand in the world,” boasts Bar. “If you ask the poorest kids in a neglected Indian neighborhood if they know Berlin, I’m not sure they’ll know it. But if you ask them if they know Jerusalem, they do. Everyone knows Jerusalem. Jerusalem doesn’t need the municipality to make it a brand. Jerusalem needs the municipality to make it a brand that’s worth visiting and worth recommending, and to show that beside the famous things that everyone knows about here, we have a lot of other things and new things to offer.”
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