The Travel Adviser: 2.8 million tourists this year... and still no minister of tourism!

The government must establish a committee to set standards for ranking Israeli hotels.

tourists jlem 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
tourists jlem 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski [file])
Diamonds may be a girl's best friend but the country's largest source of foreign income is tourism. No insult to the diamond industry, but the real gems are in the tourism industry. The latest press release from our ever-optimistic Tourism Ministry projects 2.8 million tourists will grace our shores this year. That number boggles the mind. Israel, just flush from its 60th anniversary, numbers just over seven million citizens. The prediction is that an equivalent of over one third of the number of people living here - approximately 35 percent of our total population - will touch down in the Holy Land during 2008. To put it in proportion, the United States - with more than 300 million legal citizens - welcomes each year about 15% of its total population: 45 million tourists. With these stupendous figures you would have to assume that the tourism minister is one of the most important cabinet posts. Obviously not as important as the defense minister, certainly less prestigious than the education minister, but no doubt the tourism minister must wield a lot of influence in the cabinet. Oops, I forgot that in the land of Chelm, we don't even have a tourism minister. Like a revolving door, they come and go at the government's whim, rarely staying more than a year. Traipsing off to trade shows, they wave the flag, produce beautiful videos promoting all that we have to offer and are then shown the door. We in the travel profession realize, though, that the bulk of the work, as in any ministry, is done by the countless bureaucrats toiling away to better the experience for those cash happy incoming tourists. Let's start with the hotel industry. No doubt the annual rankings of the hotels in the country are a constant concern to each property. To receive that vaunted five-star rating, or deluxe category, which can be promoted throughout the world, the hotels must reach and maintain the highest standards. The Tourism Ministry, bombarded by pressure from the Israel Hotel Association, gave up such ratings. Far better to call oneself a "Superior Tourist Hotel" without having to decipher what that means. Too often we receive e-mails from clients requesting reservations at four-star or first-class hotels. As there is no objective system in place, the travel industry relies upon the self promotion and description of the hotel. Both the Crowne Plaza (formerly both a Hilton and a Holiday Inn) at the entrance to Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Tower Hotel, a drab property located downtown, are listed in numerable sites as four stars. The innocent tourist cannot differentiate between them as the rates of the Tower are approximately half those of the Crowne Plaza with a far better location. Like lambs going to the slaughter, innocent tourists are being misled when reserving the Jerusalem Tower. While location is important, most international hotel rankings tend to view size of rooms, the range of facilities, the level of service, the amount of restaurants and conference rooms as far more important and objective factors in ranking a hotel. When the next minister of tourism is approved, the first step he should take should be to create a committee to adopt and set standards to rank all the hotels. As with most things in our government, we tend to deal with present and future trends in reverse order. Only recently has there been approval for the construction of new hotels; the latest being the announcement that the Waldorf Astoria will open her doors in Jerusalem in two years. In New York, the average price at the same hotel is $495 for a room; it's expected to easily top that amount here. So what are potential tourists supposed to do? If they are on a group tour or part of a birthright mission, the choice of the hotels is rarely an option. The tour operator and local travel agency, who do have an insight on how good a hotel actually is, make the decision. Here, though, is a tip to all tour operators: Hotels give big discounts to religious groups. Sorry, though not of the Jewish persuasion. The group must be marketed as a pilgrim group to be made eligible for this reduction. I always wanted to try to organize a secret Jewish pilgrim group, but figured the inclusion of Cohen and Levy in the rooming list would be a strong giveaway. Never understood why our staunch Christian supporters are more deserving of the pilgrim rate than our Muslim cousins or even our economically challenged Jewish groups but was told not to rock the boat. My best advice is to check a multitude of sites when selecting a hotel. Never rely solely on the hotel's own site. Self aggrandizing claims should be blatantly ignored. Reading their own descriptions of their property is less persuasive than clear pictures of where you'll be resting your head. There may also exist many other forums and sites which openly discuss the hotels, but do keep in mind that people find it easier to criticize on these sites than to compliment. Always remember, it's far better to know what you're going to get than to be surprised. An educated client is my favorite type of client. Mark Feldman is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments, e-mail him at [email protected]