Jerusalem deputy mayor: Tourism not enough to survive coronavirus crisis

Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum on the tourism nosedive and the efforts to keep Jerusalem’s central source of income from fully tanking

INDEPENDENT BUSINESS owners and workers from the tourism sector call for financial support from the government, outside the Finance Ministry in the capital on June 30. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
INDEPENDENT BUSINESS owners and workers from the tourism sector call for financial support from the government, outside the Finance Ministry in the capital on June 30.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
Having achieved the questionable record of the highest rate of COVID-19 infections in Israel, Jerusalem is now struggling to salvage its primary source of revenue: tourism.
Considering that 80% of the tourists to Jerusalem traditionally come from outside of Israel, one can imagine the amplitude of the problem this year, after the capital reached a peak of four million visitors in 2019.
“All these years, 80% of city tourists were foreigners and only 20% were locals,” notes Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, who also holds the Tourism and Foreign Relations portfolio at Safra Square.
“That is far from being enough tourism to survive this crisis. We don’t even know for the moment how long this will last. We understand that foreign tourists are not coming soon, perhaps not until next year or even later, so we had to turn to other sources.”
To deal with the problem, Hassan-Nahoum and the Jerusalem City Council formed a local committee for tourism, which the deputy mayor now heads.
“I’ve asked all the parties involved to join us in that committee,” adds Hassan-Nahoum. “In fact, this is more a think tank than just another committee, since the primary task is to find ways to revive tourism, not just to plan ahead or monitor processes taking place, like in other committees. There is a sense of emergency. That’s the bottom line in our work, and we are all working together – the municipality, the hotels association, the tourist guides, the owners of bars and restaurants – anyone who has anything to do with all the various aspects of tourism is on board with us. This is a joint endeavor we’re working on.”
So what does the rescue plan include? First up: Turn to potential local tourists, the Israelis who realize they can’t go abroad this summer, and find ways to raise their interest in an Israeli alternative to the world’s other great attractions – in this case, Jerusalem.
“When you realize that only 20% of the millions of tourists coming to Jerusalem each year are Israelis – and that includes students from schools all over the country – you understand there is a lot of work to be done. The question is, how do you persuade them that Jerusalem is no less attractive than a Greek or Turkish beach and hotel?”
Tough times require daring solutions, and convincing Israelis who have been kept from one of their most cherished hobbies – flying somewhere (after paying a visit to the duty-free shops) – that a few days in Jerusalem can be a thrilling and satisfying experience, requires presenting a wide range of advantages for the city as a tourist destination and an enticing choice of activities.
“WE PROPOSE tailor-made package deals for every kind of visitor: couples, families, secular, religious, haredi. We have something for everyone from each of these sectors, adapted to their tastes and habits. That’s the strength of this project, that anyone can find what’s the best for them,” says Hassan-Nahoum.
Persuading Israelis used to spending their summer vacations at the beach to come to Jerusalem, where obviously there isn’t any surf and sand? The approach needs to be very seductive. Some examples of what awaits those whom the city hopes to convince include: discounts of up to 20% on hotels, restaurants, tourist sites, tour guides and attractions, plus special NIS 30 children’s menus everywhere.
“We want Israelis to understand that a holiday in Jerusalem is a richer experience than Paris, Prague or Rome, and more fun. We have everything here, layers of history, plus the best family entertainment sites in the country, the best zoo, an aquarium and an incomparable culinary scene.”
And in fact, “We have everything” is one of the slogans featured prominently in the campaign that will run through workers’ committees and community centers across the country.
The campaign is looking beyond the summer and already working on the fall, with special attention and programs designed for the period leading up the High Holy Days, focusing on the period of Slihot, the month when special penitential prayers are traditionally sung.
“We are, of course, aware of Health Ministry guidelines and necessary social-distancing precautions, so slihot tours will be conducted in ‘capsules,’ small coordinated groups, to ensure that every visitor stays safe,” Hassan-Nahoum explains.
All these ideas and more are aimed primarily at restoring life back into the city’s economy, but also to lend some support to those who have been particularly hard-hit by the pandemic. However, the first thing to admit is that there have been widespread losses or drops in income.
“You can’t expect Israeli tourists to pay a tour guide the same as American tourists, but at least we do something to improve the situation,” adds the deputy mayor.
With heavy support from the Tourism and Jerusalem Affairs ministries, and with Mayor Moshe Lion being personally involved, Hassan-Nahoum says she is convinced the city has the keys to improving these difficult days.
What remains to be seen is whether Israelis from outside Jerusalem will answer the call. The coronavirus, unemployment and political turmoil were already big enough challenges. Now there’s a question of how families, especially those with young children, will react to the idea of visiting a city where almost every night, weekends included, there are thousands of demonstrators and police officers on the streets.
Another big question is whether Israelis will be convinced that a blend of history, culinary excellence and local folklore are enough to replace the sun, beaches and leisure to which they have become so accustomed. Hassan-Nahoum says she believes the singular nature of Jerusalem, and a strong campaign, will be enough to make the current plan a success.