Rebranding Israel’s image at J'lem tourism summit

Tourism Ministry head of marketing: "We need visitors to realize that they aren't going from the airport to a battlefield."

May 29, 2013 03:19
1920s Jewish tourism poster designed at the Bezalel Art Academy in Jerusalem.

tourism poster370. (photo credit: courtesy)

Industry leaders emphasized the need to “rebrand” Israel as a tourist-friendly nation by debunking common misconceptions at the second annual Jerusalem Innovative Tourism Summit on Tuesday.

The two-day summit was held at the Jerusalem International Convention Center and featured lectures from luminaries of the tourism industry.

While the country was trumpeted for its cutting-edge mobile apps to assist visitors during their stay here, numerous experts focused on shattering Israel’s image as a region defined by conflict and religion.

“We know from studies that misconceptions about Israel are primarily due to lack of knowledge,” said Oren Drori, deputy director-general and head of marketing for the Tourism Ministry.

“[Potential tourists] need to realize that they are not going from Ben-Gurion Airport to a battlefield – that we have excellent roads, people who speak English and basically, a product that sells itself.”

Drori said the ministry commissioned a branding team from Britain to study Israel’s image and found, from numerous focus groups, that it is generally seen in stark terms by those who have never visited.

“We always say that our main challenge is to bring a person to Israel for the first time because after being here once, all the walls of misconception – including safety, getting around and things to do – fall down.”

Drori said it was important to identify viable target groups who are not anti-Israel and then adjust and expertly package messages about Israel being conveyed to them.

He said for evangelical tourists it is important to emphasize the spiritual aspect of the country and for the homosexual community, to show Tel Aviv as a gay-friendly city with an active night life and vibrant culture.

“At the end of the day, we want people to say, ‘Wow! I didn’t know this about Israel.’” “We need to break down audiences, get to know them, send the right messages to them, and then get them over here to show them how spectacular this country really is.”

In terms of the hyped technological aspect of the summit, Drori said that while he respects innovations to make traveling easier and more user-friendly, it will not solve the problem of bringing a considerably higher volume of visitors to the country. To change hearts and minds, a basic message must be adjusted to reach target audiences, he said.

“Technology is important and we must be modern enough to supply the right tools, but with all due respect to technology, it’s a service tool – it doesn’t help change the image of this country.”

Meanwhile, Diego J. Lofeudo, senior director of market management for Expedia Travel, said Expedia has a presence in over 70 countries and views Israel as an excellent opportunity – although he echoed Drori’s sentiments about rebranding the nation’s image.

Lofeudo said that Expedia invested in Israel eight years ago to sell it to the world but the main challenge is overcoming the stigma that the country is only religion and military conflict.

“They don’t know about the Dead Sea, Tel Aviv, the beaches, the Mediterranean, the restaurants, museums and inclusive culture.”

Lofeudo said because the world is increasingly becoming more volatile due to terrorist elements, as people become more acclimated to this reality, international tourism remains a large draw.

“For good or bad, we’re getting used to living with uncertainty around us all around the world,” he said.

“But it’s been proven that nothing can stop people from traveling in the long-term. There may be short-term consequences, but in the long-term [tourism] is always an active business.”

Lofeudo cited the September 11 terrorist attacks as an example of the industry’s resilience.

“We had a considerable drop worldwide because people were scared to get on a plane,” he said. “But through digital marketing we were able to get people to start traveling again by offering them good deals.”

Indeed, with 60 million visitors to Expedia’s website each month, Lofeudo said his company offers prospective travelers “deals that they can’t refuse” to come to Israel.

“Israel has a great product and a good infrastructure – it’s small, and in this case, small is good because you can see much of the country in a single trip,” he said. “Also, the people are very friendly. These are all good things – the problem is branding...”

To change the perception of “war and religion,” Lofeudo said there are two ways to dispel these common myths, the first being instituting education programs for people in the travel and service industries.

“People working at travel agencies and service sectors need to know the facts about Israel in terms of explaining to tourists that there are many misconceptions about it,” he said. “They need to explain that it’s a safe place with incredible attractions and things to do. This can’t be done without education.”

The second element in Lofeudo’s strategy involves attracting what he calls “FIT’s” (For Individual Travelers), instead of the common practice of large groups who travel together.

“Israel is built for groups, but to attract individual travelers, certain things need to be developed.”

He said that Tel Aviv has exploded in the last two to three years in catering to the individual with boutique hotels and rural attractions.

But he noted that Jerusalem is behind in these services and that the image remains solely focused on religion.

“Even though there is great history there, it’s not marketed effectively,” he said. “There’s no brand.”

A member of the Tourism Ministry, who requested anonymity, agreed that Jerusalem is not being marketed well to attract a wider array of tourists.

“In general, the tourism market in Jerusalem is conservative – attracting rabbinical leaders and evangelical leaders who we rely on to bring large groups,” she said.

The official continued that with each new tourism minister, a new tourism campaign – whether it’s the beach, religion or history – is sold to the client and the message is not consistent.

“We need to change this to appeal and attract more types of visitors,” she said.

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