The best is yet to come in evolving Israeli tourism
Following a record year for tourism in 2013 — when 3.5 million visitors came to the Holy Land — things got off to an even better start in 2014. More people were on track to visit than ever … until the Gaza war last summer. By year’s end, the overall number of tourists arriving was down 8 percent to 3.25 million.
Still, Israeli Minister of Tourism Uzi Landau remains confident that the best is yet to come. A member of the Knesset for more than 30 years who has a doctorate from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, he sat down with the Journal at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza hotel Feb. 27 during a trip to Los Angeles. He spoke about the impact of security concerns, emerging trends in tourism and tourism’s overall importance to the State of Israel’s economy. An edited version of that conversation follows.
JEWISH JOURNAL: What do you think the long-term ramifications of the Gaza war will be?
UZI LANDAU: Usually what happens with such wars is that you pay a price for a number of months, and then things do level off. … We had a Gaza war at the end of 2008 and in the beginning of 2009, and the same thing happened — that is, it took some time, but after three to four months, five to six months, things start to pick up again. … Israel is a safe place, where mothers send their kids, first-graders, to school unescorted. And vis à vis all of the events in Paris — is Paris safe? Denmark — is it safe? … Israel is safe.
JJ: There’s been a growing anti-Israel sentiment on college campuses around here. What do you think this means for young people who may or may not be interested in coming to Israel as a result?
UL: I think that much of these sentiments are based on two things. One is simply misinformation. People simply do not know what is the reality in Israel. They are fed by a world campaign that is being [created] by extreme Muslim elements. In the West, they go hand in hand with extreme radical left people and extreme racial right people joined by classic anti-Semites. We are trying to reach to well-intentioned people. We are hosting many movers and shakers — just to come to Israel and see for their own eyes and then report what they saw.
JJ: How important is tourism to Israel’s economy?
UL: Tourism is highly important to Israel’s economy. In fact, today it contributes between 2 and 2.2 percent of our GDP [Gross Domestic Product]. But still the potential to be much higher is there. If I just bring, for comparison, France — France enjoys almost 4 percent contribution to GDP. Spain is 5.6 [percent]. We are the Holy Land, something that no other country can provide to any traveler who is interested in religion. I think we are the only country where one who walks there can listen to the language of the Ten Commandments spoken on a regular daily basis. It is a place where kings and empires — ancient ones — have had their footprint, including their cultural creativity, and you can find there today many archaeological excavations.
JJ: I was going to ask what the next generation of hot spots will be.
UL: Eco-tourism is already taking place, and agriculture tours are taking place. Cycling is picking up. And bird watching is there — you have hundreds of millions of birds crossing the country through the Syrian-African rift.
The Dead Sea — this is something that cannot be matched in any other place. Combine that with desert type of hiking, with desert cycling — cycling in Israel is a quickly developing sport where you can do it in the mountainous Galilee, then descend to circulate around the Sea of Galilee, and you can go to the coastal plains and then to the Negev desert, where you can enjoy either hilly areas or flat areas.
I don’t know what will be the future trends of people — whether we are going to just combine a lot of different types of niches today. You can use your bike to go through wine trails, or an agriculture type of tour, and you can combine that — start and finish your trips in a village to try and see how people of different ethnic backgrounds still live today. You could do this in a Bedouin village, in an Arab village, in a Druze village or in a kibbutz Jewish village. Again, the sky is the limit.
JJ: I understand you’re retiring. Are you going to travel? You probably know a few good places.
UL: I do. I still do it in Israel. From time to time, I’m also enjoying my time abroad.