Travel Adviser: An open letter to incoming prime minister

It's time for a new approach to travel: Why not set up a professional Council of Tourism?

tourists jlem 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
tourists jlem 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
To the incoming prime minister, It's a heady time for you these days. Having fought a relatively short election campaign, you now have to form a coalition. Not having as many seats as you want in the new Knesset means you'll be engaged in horse-trading portfolios. No doubt, both members of your party as well as your perspective partners are clamoring for such weighty ministries as defense, foreign affairs and finance. Quite right in these trouble times to focus a large part of your energy on these positions. Challenges abound in our region with too few friends and a worldwide recession that is threatening to become a depression. There are two ministries that concern me: The Transportation Ministry and the Tourism Ministry. Too often, these second-tier posts are given to individuals whose sole concern is to hang up a shingle with their names and enjoy all the benefits of being a minister. I beseech you to spend a bit more time in finding qualified people for these positions. The Transportation Ministry, among its many duties, is responsible for the safety of air passengers in general, and in particular, at Ben Gurion Airport. While the professionals employed at Ben Gurion Airport have been twiddling their thumbs, the US Federal Aviation Authority has made a startling report. Ironically, although the airport is one of the most secure in the world, the FAA recently found several flaws in safety procedures, and has lowered the safety ranking given to Ben Gurion from Category 1 to Category 2, a classification usually assigned to third world countries. Promises to make the changes needed to reclassify the airport are underway, but a strong transportation minister is vital to promote this. In addition, Israel's recent policy of "Open Skies" (which refers to an agreement between two countries allowing unrestricted air services between them) has led to unbridled competition in our country. This policy has greatly benefited the flying public in terms of competitive prices. What is still lacking is any type of consumer protection when low-cost carriers cease flying and leave the ticketed passenger in the lurch. Last fall, Lithuanian Air stopped flying to Tel Aviv, stranding hundreds of clients. To date, none of them has received any refund whatsoever. The new minister of transportation should demand of each and every airline that flies to Israel a bank guarantee to protect the unwitting consumer. Pushing for competition is a worthwhile goal; not insisting on a cogent policy of safety and consumer protection is irresponsible and borders on negligence. Israelis love to travel and the lure of the Holy Land entices travelers from around the globe to come here throughout the year. Keep in mind that US Airways is commencing non-stop flights from Philadelphia to Tel Aviv this summer. Just recently, British Midland said it is doubling its daily flights between Tel Aviv and London in March. And El Al announced earlier this month that it will launch a direct route to Sao Paulo on May 2. (It will operate three Boeing 777 flights a week to Brazil.) Our new transportation minister must focus hard on opening up new markets and countries, and this requires close cooperation with the tourism minister. Now let's turn our attention to the tourism portfolio. The minister represents Israel at countless trade shows throughout the world. His or her face is more often than not a symbol of Israel. While Bar Refaeli may grace the cover of Sports Illustrated, an effective tourism minister, fluent in several languages, has the potential to bring in many millions of dollars. Tourism ministers in the past have all been adamant in professing how vital their ministry is. Unfortunately, after a few short months they move on to another position, or new elections force them to yield their job. What is needed is a professional Council of Tourism, comprising members willing to volunteer their time, with the director-general of the ministry of tourism. These professionals would advise the tourism minister on where best to invest energy and more importantly, the ministry's budget. Be it working with the Israel Hotel Association, or deciding how much to budget overseas to encourage tourism to Israel, such a non-partisan group could make valuable suggestions. As the recession deepens, and the memories of the multitude of tourists who graced our shores in 2008 recede, we need to treble our efforts to fill Israeli hotels. Rather than making more workers redundant, we can lower the numbers of potentially unemployed hotel workers by filling the hotels with Israelis. Recent announcements from Israeli workers committees, such as the Israel Electric Company, offer potential solutions. Many others have announced they will not travel to Turkey this spring, thus giving us a golden opportunity to fill our hotels with Israelis. Hotels in both the Dead Sea and Eilat should be aggressively promoting special rates. The travel and tourism sectors create more jobs per million shekels of investment than any other sector of the economy and are capable of providing employment to a wide spectrum of job seekers from the unskilled to the specialized throughout Israel. So please, prime minister, think long and hard about who will perform these roles. Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at