Tourism minister: Arab Spring kept visitors from Israel

"Those who come from the US or Asia, they don’t know where Egypt ends and where Israel begins," Meseznikov says.

311_Stas Meseznikov (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
311_Stas Meseznikov
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem / The Jerusalem Post)
Upheaval in the Arab world has caused a significant drop in tourist visits to Israel, Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov said on Sunday.
Meseznikov said the “Arab Spring which became the Muslim Winter” has deterred a large number of tourists from visiting the region.
Even though Israel is not experiencing the upheaval of the Arab Spring, there is a sort of guilt by association due to its location in the middle of the Arab world, he said.
“Those who come from the US or Asia, they don’t know where Egypt ends and where Israel begins. On the map the border is very small,” Meseznikov said, adding that many thousands of tourists who would have previously come for day trips from Sharm e-Sheikh or elsewhere in Sinai are no longer visiting Israel because of the situation in the region.
Meseznikov also said the global economic crisis hurt tourism, as did the strength of the shekel, which made visiting Israel more expensive in 2011.
Even with the drop in tourism, 3.4 million tourists visited Israel in 2011, 2 percent more than in 2010, the previous record, he said. As in years past, the United States was the prime country of origin for tourists, with 600,000 American visitors, followed by Russia with 500,000.
Meseznikov said his ministry will spend NIS 270 million over the coming years to promote Israel abroad, in particular in China, India and Brazil, which Israel sees as emerging markets.
He also said his ministry serves as a “mini foreign ministry” because it always emphasizes the positive aspects of Israel and its tourist offerings.
He touted the near-universal awareness of the Dead Sea, and related his experiences from a 2010 trip to China.
“In many nations like China they know three things: that Israel’s people, the Jews, are the smartest people in the world, that Jews, like the Chinese, are the oldest ancient people in the world, and that the Dead Sea is the lowest place in the world.”
Meseznikov also said his ministry will work over the coming year to find ways to reduce the costs of visiting Israel, where many expenses, such as lodging and car rental, can be as high if not higher than those in Western European cities. His ministry will establish an authority to probe ways to reduce vacation costs and will present its finds by the end of 2012.
He admitted that Israel is “not cheap” for tourists and local customers, and argued that by taking steps such as reducing bureaucratic requirements for hotel construction and tourism operations, the country can reduce tourism prices by 25% in the coming years. He said he believes in the free market, and with more construction and competition, prices should come down.