The report of record-breaking numbers of incoming tourists in January, some 212,000, issued by the Central Statistics Bureau on Tuesday couldn’t have come at a better time for Stas Meseznikov.
The tourism minister proudly announced that there had been an increase of 62 percent over last year and 17% from 2008 in his opening address to an audience of tourism professionals from around the world at the opening of the International Mediterranean Tourism Market (IMTM) in Tel Aviv.
“Record January numbers of incoming tourists reflects trust in Israel’s tourism industry and the beginning of the actualization of the ministry’s goal of bringing in a million additional tourists within three years,” said Meseznikov. “We hold a treasure in our hands and must make use of it.”
Tourism Ministry officials dismissed the massive increase over 2009, noting that Operation Cast Lead in January 2009 had depressed that month’s figures, but they were proud of the increase over 2008, which was the previous record year.
“We are seeing a general upward trend over the last three or four months and it is an indication that things are heading in the right direction,” said ministry director-general Noaz Bar-Nir. “It’s a reflection of the amount of money and effort that went into targeted marketing and other actions the ministry has taken over the past few years.”
Former IAF commander and new El AL CEO Eliezer Shkedi said that tourism is an important industry, a vital element of the economy and a window through which the world can view Israel’s culture and heritage.
The IMTM, Israel’s biggest tourism event, is held every February at the Israel Trade Fairs & Convention Center. This is the event’s 16th year, with the fair growing each year in size and scope.
“This year we are featuring representatives from six new countries, including Japan and Montenegro, which are exhibiting here for the first time,” said Lior Gelfand, director of ORTRA, the conference’s organizer.
“What’s special about this year is the exciting atmosphere. There’s a real buzz that you can feel in the air and after last year when so much was uncertain because of the war and the global economic crisis, it’s really refreshing.”
This year’s exhibition featured more than 150 companies and organizations from 33 countries. From ecological tours on Kibbutz Sde Eliyahu to Kabbala tours in Safed, the exhibition showed off Israel’s varied tourism destinations.
Nearly every geographic region of the country was represented by its local tourism board, advertising a wide range of attractions, accommodations and tour packages.
In the morning the exhibition was for industry professionals only, but in the afternoon the doors opened to the general public. On Wednesday it will be open to the public all day long, offering visitors a wide variety of travel options, both domestic and international.
Among the attractions is a photo exhibit of Thailand, wine, beer and olive oil tastings from boutique local manufacturers, traditional Druse coffee and Moroccan tea, a double-decker bus brought in from Jerusalem, Segway test-drives and a 3D movie about Jerusalem.
One of the biggest booths in the conference was the Turkish Tourism Ministry’s booth. Visitors were served Turkish delight and listened to music played by a traditional Turkish band.
Inanc Ozcakmak, Turkey’s tourism attache to Israel, said that despite the political tensions between the two countries, he was optimistic about Israeli tourism to Turkey in 2010.
“Nearly 300,000 Israelis visited Turkey in 2009 and I hope there will be the same or more this year,” said Ozcakmak. “There was not a single incident that happened to the Israelis who traveled to Turkey. Turkey was, is and will remain safe for Israeli tourists.”
Visiting the Turkish booth, Meseznikov said he thought tourism could be the bridge that would restore the ties between the two countries. He also took the opportunity to formally invite the Turkish tourism minister to visit Israel.
Other notable international booths were the Brazilian booth, where visitors were treated to a samba performance, the Korean booth and the Bulgarian booth.
In addition to the trade exhibits, the event also featured professional conferences and meetings. On Sunday, attendees were invited to a conference on rustic tourism, examining Israel’s rural and agricultural tourism potential. Later there was a presentation for travel agents, focusing on the Dead Sea and its participation in the New 7 Wonders of Nature competition.
During the presentation, Tamar Regional Council Chairman Dov Litvani presented the plans to leverage the Dead Sea’s participation in the competition to boost the tourism potential of the region. He said that reaching the final level would demand around a billion votes, and that the exposure that the Dead Sea region in particular and Israel in general would receive from the win would mean a million and a half new tourists.
Litvani said that it was good that the Dead Sea was a co-entry of Israel, Jordan and the Palestinian Authority because it would help draw votes from Muslims and prevent them from boycotting it.
In the afternoon there was an employment and training fair for tourism professionals, which Bar-Nir said would feature 2,000 jobs in the tourism sector. Bar-Nir said the industry needed good people to make tourism a career.
“One of Israel’s biggest weaknesses is in the service we provide. If people see the job as a long-term employment solution, that will improve and we’ll be able to count on more return visitors,” said Bar-Nir.
On Wednesday, the event will host Israel’s Fifth Annual Tourism
Conference, which will focus on innovation and creativity in Israel’s
tourism industry in the morning, lectures on Japan, India and Morocco
in the afternoon and an employment fair for tour guides in the evening.
The IMTM is sponsored by the Tourism Ministry, El Al Israel Airlines,
the Israel Hotel Association, the Israel Tourist and Travel Agents
Association and the Tel Aviv Municipality.
David Fattal, owner and general manager of the Fattal hotel chain was given the 2010 IMTM Tourism Achievement Award.