Want more tourists in Israel?

Do more to keep them safe and treat them with respect.

tourists 88 (photo credit: )
tourists 88
(photo credit: )
Like The Jerusalem Post - in its October 24 editorial "Visit Israel" - I am also pleased to see tourists returning in better numbers, whether they are Diaspora Jews or Christian pilgrims. However, I sense that the media and the Ministry of Tourism focus too much on tourist spurts such as the impact of the number of Christian pilgrims who came for the International Christian Embassy's Feast of Tabernacles. Tourism is an ongoing process, not an occasional crisis event, as the Israeli press seem to describe it. At the Garden Tomb - believed by many to be the garden of Christ's resurrection as described in the New Testament - in Jerusalem, open throughout the year whatever the weather, and whatever the security situation, we have so far welcomed 91,500 visitors this year, most of them evangelical Christians. This represents an increase of 64 percent over the same period last year. It compares well with your figure of a 41% increase in overall tourism for the first eight months of the year. Yes, "visit Israel" for as the Post rightly says, "Israel is a fabulous place to take a vacation. The weather is great, and there is an astonishing amount to see and do in what is a very compact space. This is a fascinating country. Few, if any, other vacation destinations have a similar potential." I'm totally with you, but after nearly 20 years of involvement in the Israeli tourism scene, I'd like to make a few constructive suggestions. Each is intended to improve the quality of a visitor's vacation experience in Israel and to heighten their desire to return again with family and friends. • Firstly, considerable improvements have already been made at Ben-Gurion Airport, the entry point for most incoming tourists. The lines seem shorter, the security staff warmer and less intimidating, and there has been a welcome increase in the number of immigration desks. However, we must not rest on our laurels; careful training of a more multi-lingual staff would help Israel prepare for considerably more visitors from Asia and South America. • Protect tourists from unscrupulous taxi drivers. Require taxi drivers to obey the law and switch on their meters upon request. This is a regular problem for tourists who cannot be expected to know how much their fare should be. Tourists have arrived at the Garden Tomb this summer complaining that they "have just been ripped off" by their taxi driver. This inevitably spoils the quality of their visit and is not the report we want them to take back home. Mistaking me for a tourist, taxi drivers have regularly quoted NIS 30 even for short journeys downtown. When I have asked for the meter to be used, I have on occasion been told to get out. • Require restaurants to obey the law providing "no smoking" sections. This is a regular problem for tourists from the US who expect to be guaranteed a smoke-free zone when eating. I welcome the wonderful range of restaurants, which have opened in the past 20 years. Food and wine have greatly improved and represent good value for money. Sadly, the only thing that frequently spoils a meal is the "pretend syndrome." Far too many restaurants pretend to have a no-smoking area, but they then turn a blind eye to any infringements, unless a customer complains. • Request banks to provide more tourist-friendly cash machines. If tourists are to shop, visit our restaurants and coffee bars, use taxis or public transport they will need cash. Many bank cash dispensers, which used to function in Hebrew and English are now exclusively Hebrew; or in some areas such as Eilat, Hebrew and Russian. Since English is widely accepted as the international language of tourism, could this not be taken into account by Israeli banks? For example, the ATM closest to the premier hotels in Jerusalem's King David Street operates only in Hebrew. With our brilliant technology in Israel, could not the banks be asked to widen the range of language options, maybe adding French as well as English? • Demand adequate police protection of visitors to major tourist sites. Israel is indeed a safe place to visit, however, too many tourists still have their visit spoiled - not by terrorism but by petty thieves, pickpockets and muggers. I AM grateful for the zero tolerance policy of our local police commander for petty crime. Nevertheless, tourists are still being targeted, sometimes on a daily basis. They are "rich" and easy prey, not least because even if they lodge a formal complaint they will inevitably have returned to their home countries before the police can bring a suspect to court. We need to remember that every bad incident not only affects the one who was robbed but also his or her traveling companions. Each criminal incident not only results in a spoiled visit but also represents the loss of a potential goodwill ambassador for Israel. Police should provide foot or scooter patrols outside major tourist sites where visitors are known to be at risk. This would obviously include the churches on the Mount of Olives, the Garden Tomb, and other locations where Christian tourists in particular tend to visit. Such police protection is now urgent, for we are expecting November to be our busiest month since before 2000. If the situation does not improve, I understand that visiting tour groups may be instructed to leave their money in their hotels. All of us who are dependent on tourists for our income have an interest in their security, as well as a concern that they receive visitor-friendly facilities at every stage of their time in Israel. Only then can we expect them to return, bringing their friends with them, and that's what we all hope for. Yes, let's invite the tourists to visit Israel, but let's do all we can to make them feel safe and welcome. The writer is the director of The Garden Tomb in Jerusalem.