The recent botched visit of pop icon Demi Lovato is the wake-up call Israel needs for it to take a break from government-funded celebrity tourism.
The singer and Instagram powerhouse was reportedly paid $150,000 for traveling to Israel. Lovato, who posted pictures of her trip on her social media accounts for the enjoyment of her 74 million followers, traveled the country at the invitation and expense of the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry and another anonymous private benefactor. Despite her initial enthusiasm about her trip, which she expressed in several posts, Lovato quickly faced anti-Israel backlash in her comments section. In the face of pressure, Lovato posted a heartfelt apology for accepting payment in return for her visit, expressing regret that she had “accepted a free trip to Israel in exchange for a few posts,” and that “no one told me there would be anything wrong with going or that I could possibly be offending anyone.” The apology was then promptly deleted.
Neither Israel, the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry nor Lovato really benefited from this trip. The ministry spent hundreds of thousands of taxpayer funds for what ended up being embarrassing bad press. Lovato was embroiled in a controversy that is still being reported about in high-profile American outlets. This is not due to her visit, but due to the nature of the funding she received and her awkward apology and backtracking. Israel, as a brand, fared the worst. The trip cast Israel as desperate for the attention of celebrities, and willing to pay through the nose for a few posts. The Israeli government was seen as peddling in propaganda trips as if that is the only way to attract big names to the country, and the funding plays to the worst stereotypes of Israel and the Jewish people.
This is not the first time this has happened. Two years ago, a government-funded trip for football stars was botched due to a government ministry claiming credit for organization and funding. The 2016 Oscar nominees’ gift bag included a government-funded luxury trip to Israel, which went unused by any of the nominees after the initiative received backlash and criticism. If lessons are not learned, this will inevitably happen again.
The problem is not so much the exposure of the nature of the funders and organizers of these trips, but more the act of the government paying celebrities to visit the country in itself. The keyword here is credibility. Artists value their credibility in the eyes of their fans above all else, and accepting government money to publicize a politicized tourist destination is seen as disingenuous. When this dissonance is exposed, artists face intense public pressure and take the easy way out – capitulation and apology in accordance with the gist of the feedback they receive, which is often overwhelmingly negative. Other artists take note and make sure to stay away from credibility traps or controversy, even if they themselves do not align with the political criticism aimed at them.
ANOTHER ISSUE is that of congruence. An artist visiting the country should not be meeting with a government minister. It’s just not a good look for anybody. Artists should meet with artists. Athletes should meet with athletes. Does a pop star really need a piece of ancient Jerusalem as a gift? Probably not, and if she wanted one, she can probably afford it. Israel is a vibrant country, with millennia of cultural and historical significance, breathtaking tourist destinations, and an abundance of modern events and subcultures that can attract celebrities. Case in point – Sarah Jessica Parker recently visited the country with LGBT travel company Outstanding Travel, on the recommendation of her – wait for it – LGBT friends who had a good experience in the country. I’m told she paid for the trip herself. Coldplay’s Chris Martin has been spotted visiting Tel Aviv on his own dime to promote coexistence, Lady Gaga called Israel “breathtaking,” and Kim and Kayne have been to Israel twice because they see it as a religiously significant place to baptize their children.
Israel needs a shot of confidence to realize that shady funding of mega-influencer trips is just not a good investment. Instead, Israel needs to invest in actual tourism destinations and infrastructure – its numerous archeological marvels, such as the Golan’s Rujm Al-Hiri, which is older than the pyramids, natural wonders such as the Dead Sea, and religious sites such as the Jordan Valley’s Land of Monasteries. The country is in need of better tourist transportation, a more welcoming face greeting tourists at Ben-Gurion Airport, and a clearer policy on Sabbath commerce.
If government ministries feel compelled to spend their money on influencer visits, a better return-on-profit can be found with niche influencers with small and medium followings. These figures reach specific audiences that can still reach the hundreds of thousands, without facing high-profile criticism resulting in high-profile retractions and apologies. These trips are far cheaper to run than those for A-listers and can be tailored for maximum congruence and credibility for each participant. Many nonprofits even run trips such as these on their own funding, with great success. The best way to this is through public-private partnerships, with transparency regarding the sources of funding, to avoid awkwardness later in the process.
Israel is a great place to visit. Many visitors, including celebrities and influencers, make their own unforgettable memories here. The country and those who run it should feel confident to invest in what makes traveling here great, and take a break from paying celebrities to hang out here – we can do better.
The author is a research associate at the Military and Security Studies Program of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.