The travel adviser: Yes Minister, you have a vital job

The Tourism Ministry welcomes its latest leader, the honorable Uzi Landau, representing Yisrael Beytenu.

Uzi Landau 370 (photo credit: reuters)
Uzi Landau 370
(photo credit: reuters)
Yes Minister is a satirical British sitcom that BBC television first broadcast in the early 1980s. Set principally in the office of a British cabinet minister in the Department of Administrative Affairs, the show follows his attempts to formulate and enact legislation and effect departmental changes. The crux of the comedy centers on his struggles with the civil servants who thwart his efforts.
Fast-forward to 2013, and the Tourism Ministry welcomes its latest leader, the honorable Uzi Landau, representing Yisrael Beytenu.
Landau, born in 1943, has both a BA and a master’s in mathematics from the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. He earned a PhD in engineering from Boston’s MIT. But while he may know the shape of an isosceles triangle and be an expert in analyzing Fermat’s last theorem, his colorful background does not necessarily denote aptitude in the field of tourism.
Yes, Minister Landau, your latest cabinet position is critical to the country’s economy.
Let’s deal with the facts as you begin analyzing the state of tourism here.
A recent survey at found Israeli hotel rates some of the most expensive in the world. In fact, we successfully jumped 17 places in that ranking over the last four years, putting us close to hotel rates in New York or Moscow. In a review of over 150,000 properties, our average rate of $203 per night is higher than a good night’s sleep in a London, Amsterdam or Rome hotel – to say nothing of how much more affordable it is to stay in Paris or Frankfurt.
And tourists don’t stay holed up in their hotels throughout their stay. Throw in our trains, our shops, our taxis, the price of gas and restaurants, and our slippery slope to high prices continues.
Last year was a record year of tourism to Israel. Almost 2.9 million tourists entered our country by air, sea or land. It’s an impressive figure, to be sure, but it is barely 20 percent more than it was 13 years ago.
In a list of 10 categories rated by tourists, belief in our police scored the highest (it seems that the Israel Police’s desire to assist tourists forms a welcome contrast to our taxi drivers’ shoddy reputations). Our lowest rating, not surprisingly, had to do with fear of terrorism, but right above it was how expensive everything was.
WE HAVE been blessed in the recent past with activist tourism ministers who have traveled the world highlighting the positive things the country has to offer. Travel industry professionals have praised their work in promoting Israel at every opportunity.
Assisting in advocating “Open Skies,” working with the Knesset to pass legislation that has dispensed with visiting Russians’ and Ukrainians’ need for visas, bemoaning the slow process of approving new hotels and renovating older ones, Landau’s predecessor Stas Meseznikov leaves big shoes to fill.
His inglorious sacking at the hands of Yisrael Beytenu leader Avigdor Liberman was never fully explained. Meseznikov’s former bodyguards claimed that their boss habitually slipped away from them at night and visited night clubs, where he would get drunk regularly, causing them to extend their work hours. But hung over or not, he was impressive in championing Israel.
Now the stage is set for taking more dramatic measures, but I have doubts about whether Landau is the right man for the job. His background is one of defense issues; his political career shows his activism in foreign affairs and security matters, and his contributions have been well received but carry little weight in the milieu that surrounds a tourism minister.
The job doesn’t require a bon vivant exchanging shots of whiskey with tourists; he doesn’t need to get down at night clubs with the young tourists enjoying the Tel Aviv nightlife. He does, however, need to set the tone, to offer a welcome to all who wish to visit the country. He must seek out new markets and strengthen existing ones, chastise those hotel owners who keep their prices high and their room occupancies low and then request government assistance to bail them out. He needs to whip his civil servants into working with public relations professionals in formatting cutting- edge technology to promote the country.
THE PRESIDENT of the United States has just finished his journey to Israel, bringing with him hundreds, if not thousands, of journalists and opinion makers, and they saw a very condensed picture of what the country has to offer. Has the ministry collected these journalists’ contact details for its database? Has it formulated a plan to stay in touch, peppering them to explore the country again in all its finery? Did each correspondent get a kit on Israel? Another example of an area the ministry should tap is a small but influential group of working visitors in our country: foreign athletes. Much has been made of the despicable reaction that two Chechen players received at a Beitar Jerusalem soccer game, but it is also galling that year after year, the large contingents of foreign basketball players are left to their own devices in Israeli society. Where is our Tourism Ministry to reach out to these athletes, offering them guided tours of the country, explaining in depth some of our history, which would likely ring a bell with them? There is, to date, no formal Tourism Ministry committee of travel professionals and civil servants tasked with promoting Israel.
Lame campaigns surface to “Adopt a Tourist,” with laughable results. We’re cajoled to smile and invite tourists into our homes.
Just throwing out a desired number like five million tourists per annum in the next five years is not sufficient. As in any successful business, a proper plan must be created, financed and implemented.
We may not be able to change the way our society treats tourists; we still need to focus on how we treat each other. But we do need to make the service industry more amenable to those tourists. We won’t be able to offer them the cheapest accommodations, but we can most certainly offer them the richest experience.
Yes, Minister, you have a vital job ahead of you.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours Jerusalem.