Record year for bad PR, and good tourism

Despite Israel’s sinking political image in the world, 2010 is on track to set an all-time annual record for the largest number of visiting tourists.

tourists at church  (photo credit: Courtesy)
tourists at church
(photo credit: Courtesy)
A line of tour buses is parked at Jerusalem’s Mount Scopus lookout point. Crowds of tourists from Russia, Brazil, Italy and other countries look down at the urban and desert vista dominated by the golden Dome of the Rock, their guides lecturing in a cacophony of languages.
Dressed for the heat in all-white sun hat, Tshirt, pedal pushers and sandals, Ksenia Ponomareva, a college administrator from Moscow, says this is her first time in Israel, she’s here with her mother and they came on the recommendation of her older brother. At 24, the only other vacation abroad Ponomareva has taken was to Hungary.
Asked why they decided on Israel, Ponomareva cites the cancellation of the visa requirement for Russian tourists – a change made in 2008 that ushered in the current wave of visitors from that country. “Now it’s very easy to come here and travel,” she says.
Mother and daughter weren’t scared by Israel’s reputation as a country of terrorism and war?
“We looked on the Internet and saw that Israel was a really safe country, but that there were red signs and green signs that you shouldn’t cross,” she says, seemingly referring to the signs on the dividing line with the Palestinian Authority.
What about Israel’s image politically – did that affect their thinking?
“I have no idea about the politics here,” Ponomareva replies.
She and her mother aren’t exactly here on a pilgrimage, but they are church-goers and see the visit as an opportunity “to raise our spiritual level.”
And they’re having a great time. “Israel is a good country. People here like to be friendly,” says Ponomareva. Her most memorable experience? “The Dead Sea – you can just float!” The only criticism she has is of the weather at the beginning of her trip in mid-August. “Like a Turkish sauna,” she laughs.
Passing the trinket vendors in the Old City’s Muslim Quarter, Monica Zygieto and Elvira Luka, both 34 and from Poland, say they came here for the first time after being convinced by an Internet pal – Victor, a half-Polish, half-Arab man from Haifa who’s taking them around the country.
“We came because it’s exotic, because it has so much history and culture and such a variety of people,” says Zygieto, a teacher, who does all the talking.
Did Israel’s political image play any part, positive or negative, in your decision?
“I don’t pay a lot of attention to politics. I don’t get involved,” she says.
With Victor, they’d traveled up North and were now starting out in Jerusalem, and they’ve enjoyed it all, or just about all. “Not the weather at first,” notes Zygieto. “And the security girl at the airport – she never smiled, she asked me all these questions and it was the middle of the night. It made me a little nervous.”
Asked if they would come back, Zygieto and Luka say, “Yeah,” nodding their heads enthusiastically.
SURPRISE, SURPRISE: Despite Israel’s sinking political image in the world, 2010 is on track to set an all-time annual record for the largest number of visiting tourists. Barring an outbreak of war or terrorism that would wipe out reservations – like the second intifada that prevented the year 2000 from setting records – 2010 should end up with 3.2 million incoming tourists, beating 2008’s record of 2.9 million, say Tourism Ministry officials.
How can this be, given Israel’s generally bad notices in the international media? For one thing, the great bulk of tourists are pro-Zionist Jews and evangelical Christians, who support Israel no matter what it does or what others say. As for the rest of the market, Pini Shani, head of the Tourism Ministry’s Overseas Department, says: “I’m familiar with the feeling that people hate us all over the world, but I think the majority don’t have any idea about Israeli policies and couldn’t care less.”
He casts doubt on the idea that the raid on the Turkish flotilla, or Operation Cast Lead or the makeup of the government is causing tourists to cross the country off their list of destinations. “I’m not sure that people [who react strongly against such actions] are such lovers of Israel to begin with, or that they would come here even if Israel’s image were different.”
However, Shani acknowledges that “clearly, there is some resentment out there, and we can assume that if Israel were now at peace, and had been at peace for a good few years, we would not be talking about three million tourists in 2010 but about many, many more.”
Still, this is a record year, a rebound from the slump of 2009, and Shani says the main reason is the sense of security (which wasn’t here last year after Operation Cast Lead). Secondly, he cites the boom in Russian tourism caused mainly by the lifting of the visa requirement, and thirdly, he points to the increased marketing efforts by the ministry and tourism industry, whose main focus is on Christians.
That’s the government’s view of tourism in 2010: a record success. The view from tourism entrepreneurs, though, is starkly different.
“In the army you count heads, but in the tourism industry you don’t count heads, you count money, and as far as money goes, the situation is not good at all, certainly not as good as it was before the second intifada,” says Raphael Farber, chairman of Royal Plaza Hotels and vice president of the Israel Hotels Association.
“A large proportion of the number of visitors comes from people who own apartments here, like a lot of the French Jews, or yeshiva students, or people who come to stay with family. They don’t stay in the hotels. Same with all the people who come for one day, as a stopover during a cruise, or those who come through the border crossings from Egypt and Jordan. A great deal of the Russian tourism is this one-day tourism. I’m not against it, of course, but it’s not bona fide tourism. These people spend very little money in the country. In all, tourists spend much less today than they did in the 1990s,” says Farber, blaming it on the world economic recession.
Furthermore, he insists that the political atmospherics surrounding Israel are having a “huge negative impact” on tourism. “We’re losing the people who are not fanatical lovers of Israel, who are not like the evangelicals,” he maintains. “People who are in the middle, who don’t have strong allegiances for or against Israel, when they see what happened with the flotilla, for instance, they don’t want to come here. We could have much larger numbers of tourists if Israel’s image were better. People who say politics doesn’t play a role in tourism aren’t facing reality.”
SO HOW DOES he explain this year’s record “head count,” even if, as he insists, that’s all it is? “Between late 2000 and 2005, nobody was coming, so it’s very natural that those who were planning to come then, but didn’t, are coming now. It’s makes perfect sense to have a huge increase after such a huge slump,” Farber says. “In 2008 [when tourism went down] you had the war in Gaza and a world economic crisis, so this year there’s been a rebound in numbers of tourists, but the world is still in economic crisis and the tourism industry here is still feeling the effects.”
Yet whether for one day or 10, the Russians are coming, and they are the big new demographic in tourism. From 73,500 visitors in 2006, their numbers jumped to 400,000 in 2009, and the numbers are up another 62 percent for the first seven months of this year.
Outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Andrei Uvarou, a software designer from St.
Petersburg, says he’s here for the first time with a relative who would be singing in the Zimriya international choir festival. “It’s a great opportunity for me to see the country,” he says.
Almost by definition, anyone visiting Israel has at least a fairly good opinion of the country, and Uvarou, 30, says his view is the general view in Russia.
“Israel’s image in my country is positive.
Israelis are optimistic. They’ve made a green land out of this desert. They built a strong, impressive-looking country,” he says.
Politically, he says Russians tend to side with Israel against the Arabs. “We think Israel wants to live in peace with the neighboring countries, but the others don’t want to.” He adds: “I thought the high military presence on the streets, the soldiers everywhere, the people checking your bags all the time, would make me nervous, but it doesn’t. It makes you feel safer.”
Leading the Russian tour group at Mount Scopus, Oleg Kuzmin, an immigrant who’s been a tour guide for two years, says that when he started out, he considered billing himself as an English-language guide because there wasn’t much trade with Russian groups. “But now, with all the tourism, all the guides have enough work, but especially in Russian – ever since the visa requirement was canceled, we’ve got loads of work.”
He says the Russian tourists he takes around tend to be more interested in economics, in how the economy became strong, than they are in politics, but above all they’re drawn here by the history and the Christian connection. “I explain to them how Christianity grew out of Judaism, the connection between the two religions, so they feel a closeness with Jews, so they understand that we’re not from the moon,” says Kuzmin.
How to boost tourism in the years to come? Shani says Israel offers a blue-chip “tourism product,” and the thing is “to stick to a longterm plan and not change goals every year, to transmit the message loud, clear and repeatedly.”
THE MESSAGE, he says, varies according to the target audience, but the audience “in play” is secular gentiles. “They’re interested in the culture and history that Israel has to offer, so this is what we appeal to,” he says. Mindful of the need to boost income as well as head count, Shani says another goal of the ministry’s marketing is to appeal “to tourists over 25 with money to spend.”
In Farber’s view, Israel has to do two things – get a serious peace process going and upgrade tourism infrastructure. “We don’t have to make peace, but we at least have to appear to want to make peace, we have to demonstrate a keen interest in making peace,” he says. “And the government needs to invest in new roads and railways, in larger airports and seaports – like they do in every modern country.”
Peace process or no, people like the Levitan family of Toronto will always be coming to Israel, so long as it’s safe. “This is our first time,” says Inna Levitan, who works in real estate with her husband Val. In their mid-40s, they waited to come until their kids were old enough to appreciate what Israel means to them as Jews.
“With all the conflict, the flotilla and all, we wanted to show them the people protecting our people’s homeland, to show them the truth from our perspective,” says Val, shopping for trinkets inside Jaffa Gate.
As for politics, he says, “We’re 100% on Israel’s side. There’s no doubt.”
There is, however, at least a small number of tourists who do have doubts, who are neither 100% on Israel’s side nor 100% against Israel’s side, who are drawn here in part precisely by the political controversy. Many can be found in the hostels of the Old City such as the Citadel.
“We’re living on the Citadel roof,” enthuses Hannie Van Der Weerd, a social work student from the Netherlands. She’s in a group of five Citadel tourists in their 20s walking through the Christian Quarter. On the roof of the hostel, they get into intense discussions with foreigners who’ve come to volunteer for pro-Palestinian groups in the West Bank, while in the streets they strike up conversations with Israeli soldiers. Some have been to Dehaishe refugee camp near Bethlehem, some have seen “the wall,” and on this day they would be going together into the West Bank.
In the Netherlands, the news isn’t very friendly to Israel, says Sharon Van Gijssel, a day care employee, but she adds: “I don’t believe anything the media say about Israel.” Her husband, Matthijs, a business student, says, “The news about the flotilla in the Netherlands portrayed Israel as the aggressor, but then you see the Israeli army films and Israeli soldiers were attacked.”
Mike Murry, a Christian from Reno, Nevada, who will be volunteering in East Africa, says traveling around Israel and the West Bank “brings up a lot of questions. I can see why Israel built the wall for its protection, but on the other hand, we saw Palestinians forced to show their ID to Israeli soldiers. It’s hard to find the bad guy in all this.”
“For me, it’s more of a human issue than a political one,” says Van Der Weerd.
For Sharon and Matthijs Van Gijssel, there isn’t much of an issue either way. “We’re here because we love the country,” says Sharon. “It’s a milestone in our lives to come to the Holy Land. It’s the cradle of history, the nature is stunning and the people are really nice.”
Maybe the whole world isn’t against us, after all.