A trip in a dreamland
Only domestic trade can save the dying tourism industry. But can public relations based on a denial of the security situation be helpful?
Eliezer Hod, the director of the Ministry of Tourism's department for promoting domestic tourism, watched television the night of the bombing at the Hebrew University campus some 10 days ago and was infuriated. The expanded news coverage featured the familiar scenes of bleeding victims, grief and tears, and between these scenes promotional ads encouraged Israelis to visit Jerusalem.
Smiling, happy people were seen strolling leisurely in the city, the glorious panoramas were filmed from angles intended to broadcast a message of strength and pride, and blue and white flags fluttered just like in a Labor or Likud election campaign ad. Anyone watching television then could not help but wonder if the optimistic and vivacious ad referred to the same city featured on the screen just a few seconds earlier.
"The ads are too expensive to be wasted during such moments," Hod says. "It wasn't appropriate. I was very upset by the lack of sensitivity."
Since the beginning of the Al Aqsa intifada in late September 2000 and in light of the subsequent deterioration in the public's sense of security, the Ministry of Tourism has concluded it can forget about foreign tourism. Domestic tourism will have to save the ailing industry.
Hod relates that the budget of the domestic tourism department increased from NIS 6 million in 1999 to NIS 25 million this year, not including NIS 15 million in emergency aid that the government transferred to the Jerusalem Municipality after the previous wave of terrorist attacks to ward off a total collapse of the tourist industry. "If Jerusalem collapses," he explains, "everything will collapse."
The numbers are stark. In the three tourist destinations that have been afflicted with terrorist attacks - Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Netanya - there has been a severe drop in hotel occupancy. From January to June 2002, there was a 68 percent drop in the number of hotel stays in Jerusalem compared to the same period in 2000; in Tel Aviv there was a 47 percent drop; and in Netanya a 63 percent drop.
There is an economic domino effect corresponding to the dry numbers. Hod, who describes the losses in the industry as "astronomical," estimates that as a direct result of the disappearance of foreign tourists visiting Israel, some 50,000 Israelis have lost their livelihood. "It starts with hotel workers and carries over to drivers, tour guides, workers in travel agencies, staff at tourist sites such as museums and parks, souvenir shop owners and others," he says.
At least the enemy is known
An emotional call urging Israelis to take the place of foreign tourists and physically block the demise of the industry is the fitting Zionist response. However, this year the Ministry of Tourism opted for a different strategy. Unlike the public relations campaign of the last two years, which used the slogan "Especially now is the time for a vacation in Israel" and hinted at the need for a local, patriotic mobilization, the promotion campaign this year is based on extreme denial of the difficult security situation. In radio, television and newspaper ads produced for 12 cities and vacation spots in Israel, the situation that led to the tourism crisis is completely overlooked. A foreigner watching the ads promoting Jerusalem or Netanya would not imagine that dozens of residents of these two cities have lost their lives in countless terrorist attacks over the last two years.
Shosh Leket, the head of the Jerusalem Municipality's tourism department, is a loyal advocate of the new policy. This summer her department launched a series of events and far-reaching offers of perks to bring Israelis to the city, revive small businesses in the center of Jerusalem and save what's left of the local hotel industry. Since the beginning of July through the end of the Jewish holidays (in late September) any Israeli who books a hotel room in Jerusalem will receive a thick booklet of vouchers entitling him to free entry to a variety of attractions in the city - among them, the Tower of David museum, the Tisch Family Zoological Gardens, commonly known as the Biblical Zoo, the Israel Museum and more.
In previous years, similar booklets contained only discount vouchers. This year, the Jerusalem municipality is subsidizing 75 percent of the cost of every entry ticket and the sites themselves are covering the other 25 percent. The booklet's value is estimated at NIS 600-700.
The Jerusalem Municipality is holding mass outdoor events in the downtown pedestrian mall that has witnessed seven terrorist attacks. Since the beginning of August, different fairs are being scheduled there every week - Wednesday through Saturday evenings. Two weeks ago there was a food fair, last week saw a beauty and cosmetics fair and this week there will be a fashion fair, followed by a "back-to-school" fair, the Hutzot Hayotzer arts and crafts fair, a multimedia and communications fair and others.
Leket enthusiastically defends the summer events public relations campaign that ignores the difficult situation that is basically the reason for its creation. "I don't think we have to talk about it," she says. "There are problems in other cities also. In New York as well, people didn't stop going out after the attacks on the Twin Towers."
Actually, there was a substantial drop in tourism there after September 11.
"I don't know. I don't have data on it, but there you don't even know who your enemy is. Here, at least you know," she says trying to offer encouragement and then immediately launches an attack with another example: "My husband and I lived for several years in Los Angeles. One day I drove to the store near the house and I saw a black man loitering. Did I make a big deal about it? What do you mean?! I just circled around the block and parked somewhere else."
Leket, who was interviewed a day after the suicide bombing attack at a falafel stand in the center of town, believes that the media is exaggerating in its description of the situation and "over-dramatizing it." "Why do you have to write in the headline that the attack was in the heart of the city," she asks rhetorically. "It's damaging to us. The media is part of the government establishment and it shouldn't get into commentary."
But the attack really was in the center of the city.
"I don't know. In my opinion, it's exaggerated," she says.
Leket has only praise for another sector of the population. "The ones who are loyal to this city are the national-religious sector, which is mobilizing to help us. There's a sense that there are people there who want to help us specifically because of the situation, specifically this year. You can count on them."
Shalom Krauss, the director of the Netanya Municipality's tourism department, actually does not deny that the difficult situation of the local tourist industry is a direct result of the murderous attacks there, but cautiously adds that since the television campaign began, he has sensed a certain recovery: "Every day our information center receives 40-50 calls. I hope that this campaign succeeds, but I still don't have the data for the month of August."
The tourism promotion spots filmed in the city, Krauss says, do not mention the attacks, but there was an attempt to let the public know that Netanya is safe and among other things, the TV ad featured a happy family walking along the ill-fated promenade. "We inserted the security message subliminally. We're appealing to the subconscious. In the print ads the increased security in the city is actually highlighted."
Doesn't help business
A visit to the beauty and cosmetics fair last held last week at the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall in Jerusalem revealed that the media campaign is succeeding partially. The mall, which has 12 entrances, was full of people and had unprecedented security measures including dozens of private security guards plus a very large number of regular police and Border Police. In the ad-hoc forward command post set up on the second floor of a recently closed shwarma restaurant at 11 Ben Yehuda street, a busy young woman tried to maintain contact with all the security people and coordinate among them using four different communications devices.
On the lower floor, among the electrical wires hanging from the ceiling and the restaurant equipment no longer in use stood two young yeshiva students. Because of fear of terrorist attacks, this was the first time in the last six months that one of the boys, Yoni, had come to the center of town. In the afternoon, he heard Jerusalem Mayor Ehud Olmert announcing on the local radio station that all the entrances to the pedestrian mall were guarded and that "pushed me to come and try and play against Kasparov."
On the pedestrian mall, he met Yossi, a friend who says he managed to enter the area without going through any security check. "I'm scared, but I trust in the Holy One Blessed be He," he says. Yossi, on the other hand, says that despite the attacks, he did not avoid the center of town. "He's apparently a bigger believer than I am," Yoni said with a smile.
Though the mall area was full of people and there was a sense of security, the store owners in the area were not doing better business. Freidy Ingleberg, the owner of the Gur Arieh bookstore, says people were coming to the area, but were focusing on the fair and not on the stores. "The municipality may want the businesses here to remain open, but in practice it's not doing anything to help us. No break on property tax (arnona), no nothing," she says. According to her, the small bookshop's sales have dropped by 80-90 percent since the attacks started and therefore, Ingleberg recently opened another shop in Rehavia. Next month she will regretfully close the shop on the pedestrian mall.
To illustrate how difficult the situation is for the small shops on the pedestrian mall Ingleberg accompanies me outside and points to nearby darkened windows. Here there was a cafe, here there was a restaurant and another one here, and another cafe here, and another and another," she points all around. The list is long. The nice restaurant adjacent to her shop, Chamomile, will close next week.
Steve's Packs, another veteran store on the pedestrian mall that was in the past especially popular with American youths who came to Israel during their summer vacation, is also not doing more business as a result of the fair organized by the municipality. Itzik Cohen, 18, who is working in the store before being drafted into either a combat engineering or Golani unit this November, also says that the fair was not helping business. "People are certainly walking around and it's good that some people are out on the street, but no one's buying anything. I hope that the good days return." In the course of thirty minutes, only one person comes into the store. He asks how long the warranty for backpack zippers lasts and disappears without buying a thing.
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