Jerusalem state of mind

The second Jerusalem International Tourism Summit this week attracts big names and even bigger ideas.

May 23, 2013 13:47
Aerial view over Jerusalem's Tower of David.

Jerusalem aerial view David Citadel 370. (photo credit: Library of Congress)

World tourism experts, business leaders, entrepreneurs, academic and industry leaders, travel writers and bloggers will be converging on the capital next week for the second Jerusalem International Tourism Summit, which its organizers have dubbed “one of the most important summits on innovative technologies in tourism and travel.”

The organizers have lined up an impressive roster of speakers for the two-day conference, including Sheldon Adelson, chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corporation, which operates casinos and holiday resorts in the United States and Asia; urban studies theorist Dr. Richard Florida, who lectures at the University of Toronto and NYU; Michael Arad from the New Yorkbased Handel Architects, who designed the National September 11 Memorial at the World Trade Center site; and Hugh Aitken, UK commercial manager at cut-price airline easyJet.Other important summit attendees include a number of tourism and finance ministers from various countries, as well as mayors from some of the world’s leading cities. Charm Lee, president of the Korean Tourism Organization, and Dr. Dirk Glaesser, acting director of the UN World Tourism Organization’s Sustainable Development of Tourism Program, are among the summit panel participants.

The gathering was initiated by the Prime Minister’s Office, the Tourism Ministry, the Jerusalem Municipality and the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA), in cooperation with the Hebrew University and the Jerusalem International Convention Center.

New tourism technologies and planning models for urban tourism will be the focus of the conference, which will also discuss the challenges and trends that influence world tourism. The international gathering of decision makers aims to bring together a business network that will generate important and influential discussions, as well as connections within the industry.

As any large-scale event organizer will tell you, it is often a challenge to get the inaugural edition up and running.

But even once the event becomes a fixture, there is plenty of work to do.

“Yes, we want the tourism summit to become a tradition in Jerusalem,” says JDA chairman Moshe Leon. “Each time, we do our best to present Jerusalem to the world, and anyone involved in tourism in Israel and around the world. Last year was a success, so we are looking to maintain that.”

Meanwhile, Tourism Minister Uzi Landau is keen to point out the prowess of the local hi-tech industry and how its products can help support the capital’s tourism cause.

“Israel encourages innovation and leads the world in innovative technologies,” says the minister. “The combination of innovation and tourism, similar to cooperation between countries, is a prerequisite for the promotion of tourism across the globe, and we will continue to strengthen the two.”

JERUSALEM MAYOR Nir Barkat is upbeat ahead of the conference, highlighting the progress the capital has made in the tourism field.

“Jerusalem has broken numerous records for the number of foreign and domestic tourists arriving in the city,” he notes. “Jerusalem is most befitting to host the key figures within the world and national tourism industry, and also to present the next world-changing technological advances.”

Leon says things have been going well for Jerusalem in recent years, and that the capital is becoming an evermore- attractive holiday destination.

“The number of tourists coming to Jerusalem has been increasing,” he says. “Ninety percent of tourists who come to Israel visit Jerusalem.

Jerusalem is the driving force of our national tourism.”

Of course, the bottom line is always about how the rise in the number of visitors translates into financial returns, and how it impacts the city’s coffers – for instance, in terms of hotel occupancy levels.

“The number of hotel bookings in Jerusalem has risen,” notes Leon proudly. “We are talking about 75 percent [mean annual] hotel occupancy, which is a very good figure.”

In many vacation destinations, the weather plays a key role in bringing in tourists. Jerusalem, though, has other kinds of seasonal offerings.

“The time around Rosh Hashana and Passover is a very busy period for [Jewish] tourism in Jerusalem. Then you have the Easter period, when Christians come here, and there’s the time around Christmas and the secular New Year, which are also busy,” he explains.

“When you talk about an average hotel occupancy level of 75% in Jerusalem, during the course of the year, there are of course plenty of times when that rises to 100%.”

According to the JDA chairman, the facts on the ground are promising.

“In 2012, 3.5 million tourists came to Israel, and three million of them visited Jerusalem,” he declares. “That’s a wonderful achievement. In past years, there were between 1.5 million and two million [visitors to Jerusalem], and that figure has risen sharply in recent years.”

More than anything, he says, the approaching summit is designed to bring Jerusalem to the attention of key players in the global industry.

“We want more and more of the world to get to know the city. We want to impress on the professionals the advantages of Jerusalem, so that they leave the summit and go off to work to bring people here.”

One of the tourism angles he and his cohorts are looking to develop in Jerusalem is bicycle tourism.

“We are putting a lot into this field,” he says. “We are in the final stages of creating parks all around the perimeter of Jerusalem, and that includes cycle paths right around the city, which take in places like Gazelle Valley and the Emek Refaim Park. We want people, including tourists, to be able to cycle right around Jerusalem, through the parks, which will be a tremendous experience.”

He says his organization’s efforts already start from a good vantage point: “Jerusalem is a brand name, a globally recognized brand, and all we are trying to do is to develop this brand as much as we possibly can.”

Noting that “hotel revenue in Jerusalem has increased by 11%, and 13% more Israelis visit the city,” Leon explains that can be partly attributed to the introduction of new events to the city’s cultural calendar.

“We are investing a lot in the cultural life of the city. We now have the Festival of Light in the summer, and the City of Lions festival, and that brings in a lot of people. And we want to develop events at Zedekiah’s Cave. And there’s all the renovation and redesigning work we are doing on Hansen Hospital.”

That last refers to the former lepers’ hospice in the German Colony neighborhood, which has been refitted and turned into a handsome museum and cultural center, as well as a venue for a wide range of arts and entertainment events.

“We run a campaign to promote domestic summer tourism in Jerusalem,” adds the JDA chairman, “and I am sure it also helps to attract people from abroad.”

He is, naturally, looking to promote the good things Jerusalem has to offer, and says he hopes that will enable people to see beyond the political situation.

“We work very hard on this. It is Sisyphean work, and you don’t get immediate results. You have to do your best and be patient,” he says. “We talk about the positive things we have here – Jews and Arabs living side by side, religious and secular people, and the special things here. Everyone who comes to Jerusalem finds something special.”

The Internet, of course, figures in the tourism fray.

“There’s [the website] Travel Jerusalem. You can go to the site and find all sorts of special tours you can take around the city,” he says. “We are devoting special attention to the individual tourist, who can take a look at what there is to offer, and he or she can find their own way around Jerusalem, as they please.”

And as for the weather, Leon says it is a point in Jerusalem’s favor.

“When you arrive in the city in the summer and you feel the cool air in the evening, you know there is no other place like it.”

The Jerusalem International Tourism Summit will take place on May 28 and 29 at the Jerusalem International Convention Center.
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