Closer to Mecca than to Paris

Separate the violence in our region from tourism and emphasize the present.

In 1992 tourism was Israel’s biggest industry. It supported more than three million jobs and provided the country with a profit of more than $460 million, according to the report published by MCM Aquaria in 2008.
Yet in 2001, the number of tourists visiting the country dropped to 850,000; in 2005 the state lost more than $1.125 billion supporting the tourism infrastructure; during the past six years, the national investment in tourism has fallen by more than 48 percent.
Internationally there were more than 922 million tourists traveling in 2008 who spent a total of more than $944 billion in the countries they visited. France was the most popular destination, hosting almost 80 million visitors; after that, the US with 58 million and Spain with 57 million.
In that same year, less than 3 million tourists visited Israel. The next year that number plunged by 11%. In 2005 the number of Israelis traveling overseas was almost double the number of foreign visitors (3.9 million exits as opposed to 1.9 million entrances). So, what’s happened?
On the surface, the answer is simple, but painful: Our part of the world is perceived as a dangerous place, and people are afraid to come here.
Yet the deeper problem is that we have become reconciled to this situation – our violent nature has become, if not acceptable to us, tolerable. I am always surprised when my Israeli friends tell me they are afraid to visit some other part of the world because it’s “dangerous.”
It is as if we are oblivious to our own character. Somehow we feel safe here among the rockets and threats of nuclear devastation. We have become so insensitive (or traumatized) that we can’t understand the fear foreigners feel when they consider visiting. We have a huge blind spot.
For years now, our crippled tourism industry has been completely dependent on internal tourism to survive, and we somehow have reconciled ourselves to this price. We manifest our famous yehiyeh beseder (everything will be okay), magically thinking that at some point in the future things will get better, while an entire industry is collapsing.
IN THE early 1990s there was an air of optimism that we were on the verge of peace. The song of that season was “Night Train to Cairo” and we sat in our living rooms watching and listening to Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin waxing in bold terms about our future. Then came Rabin’s assassination. We awoke, as if from a stupor, to a new and frightening reality that our problems were even greater than we had imagined, and most disturbingly, they came from within rather than without. The collective depression that followed the assassination wiped away our fragile optimism, and with it the tourism industry.
Today, we speak in unconvincing terms of Jerusalem as a magnet for tourists, yet the same MCM report recommends that we disregard our capital as a serious part of the tourism infrastructure. The conservative nature of the city repels tourists, and the city’s tourism infrastructure is not large enough to support any serious increase. (People don’t go to Croatia to visit Zagreb, but Dubrovnik.)
Our Ministry of Tourism invests significant resources restoring archeological sites like Masada and Beit She’an. The results are impressive, yet the investment misses the point.
Why do people go on vacation? If one looks at the three most popular destinations, the answer is clear. It is not archeology. Most tourists are looking not for the past but the present. They are searching for a live culture, not a dead one. They are looking for good food, good weather and good times. They want escape, fun and adventure.
There are two groups that together comprise more than 50 percent of our foreign tourism today – religious Christians and Jews. They do travel here not for fun but out of belief. In that sense, today as a tourist destination, we are closer to Mecca than to Paris.
The MCM report has practical suggestions to improve the tourism industry in Israel: concentrate on Eilat and Tel Aviv, bypass Jerusalem, invest in our infrastructure (add at least another 20,000 hotel rooms) and build new attractions. But let’s not kid ourselves – we don’t have Paris. We don’t have a vibrant metropolis with a glorious (but recent) culture.
What we do have, to misquote Yehudit Ravitz, is a beautiful little tropical country – a miracle in the desert. We are the vibrant young nation that has managed to survive against all the odds and, in the process, built a thriving oasis. We have a population comprised of 70 different national groups, each with its own tradition, culture and music. We speak nationally four different languages, and have the longest and most successful democracy in our area of the world.
But deeper than that, what do we want to sell, the living or the dead? Are we prouder of who we were, or of who we are? The Egyptians say, “Don’t see us as we are, see us as we were. We were once great.”  Is that what we want?
With all due respect to the Ministry of Tourism, the way out of this crisis doesn’t start with hotel rooms or roller coasters, but rather with the spirit of the people. Are we Masada, a closed culture, indifferent to the world around us, determined to go our own way no matter the price, or are we open, proud, looking both forward and backward, eager to show who we are and what we’ve accomplished?
Saul Singer, in his recent book Start up Nation with Dan Senor, points out that our hi-tech industry has managed to separate the violence in our region from the attractiveness of our entrepreneurs. So even as violence has risen in the past few years, so too has the level of foreign investment.
There is no reason why we can’t do the same in tourism. The way up isto prominently promote who we are as a people today – our Israeliidentity, not our Jewish identity - and the fantastic time people canhave if they choose to visit our little tropical paradise in the MiddleEast.
It all begins with pride in who we are today.
The writer is the owner of CodaMillennium, which deals with consulting companies and organizations inthe fields of tourism, hotels and hi-tech.