The Marketing Blitz That Could Bring Tourists Back to Israel

The security situation may be bleak, but one expert says transparency, social networks and new markets can revive tourism in the Holy Land.

Tourists posing for a photograph in Jerusalem.
Tomer Appelbaum

Israeli tourism is at a nadir, and no relief is in sight. Daily reports of terror attacks in centers like Jerusalem make it difficult for potential tourists to think of Israel as a safe destination for a trip or vacation.

“What we see is not connected to Operation Protective Edge [the 50-day war between Israel and Hamas in 2014], but rather an extended, low-intensity conflict without an end,” says Dr. Eran Ketter, a lecturer on tourism planning, management and marketing at Kinneret College on the Sea of Galilee. “It wears down the tourists and Israel’s ability to launch campaigns, because it is impossible to promise that it will be over soon.”

Ketter recently coauthored a book (in English) with Prof. Eli Avraham from the University of Haifa’s communications department, called “Tourism Marketing for Developing Countries: Battling Stereotypes and Crises in Asia, Africa and the Middle East.” The book examines over 100 instances of countries and tourist destinations around the developing world, and the publicity campaigns, PR moves, use of the Internet and social networks and other marketing tools employed to overcome crises and stereotypes, and give these places a positive and attractive image.

Source is the message

According to the book, strategies tied to rehabilitating a negative image are based on three components. The first is the source of the message. Coverage of crises or developing countries in mass media often tends to be superficial and stereotypical, focusing strictly on negative aspects. Strategies that focus on developing alternative media outlets, particularly on websites and social networks in which they can send their marketing message directly without the news media intervening, are the answer.

In Israel’s case, tourists get their message through mass media, Ketter tells Haaretz. “They open CNN or the BBC and see attack after attack, and that hurts the destination’s image. We need to try to influence or bypass the source,” he says, citing Nepal as an example.

“Nepal suffered a deadly earthquake last April, which caused the deaths of over 9,000 people and injured more than 23,000. Whoever followed the media coverage after the earthquake certainly remembers the feeling that Nepal had become a center of destruction, with just rubble remaining and tourism in the country over. But the media did not mention that many tourist places in the country had been unaffected.”

Ketter says Nepal’s Tourism Ministry used social networks as its source to send an alternative message, which it communicated to the world. “They distributed signs to tourists with ‘I am in Nepal now’ written on them, and asked them to take pictures with the signs and post them on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook with the hashtag #nepalnow,” he explains. “In parallel, they hosted photographers from abroad, who toured different places around the country. They also uploaded photos to the social networks to show that tourism carried on.”

Ketter believes Israel could be inspired by the campaign. “If the image being shown on foreign media is that Israel is a scary place, you can use a similar concept of sharing messages through tourists on social networks. You can show that there is Christmas in Israel under a shining sun, and people enjoying the Dead Sea, Eilat and Tel Aviv without fear. You have to promote these posts on the networks and show that the reality is different. And then we basically say to people, ‘Yes, there is a crisis, but in most areas in Israel, life goes on as normal, and the cafés are full as usual.”

A similar campaign was run in Kenya in October 2014, based mainly on local people uploading their photos on social networks: for example, a picture of the beach with the hashtag #WhyILoveKenya. The campaign was only partially successful, because it wasn’t fully implemented.

“If the Kenyan Tourism Ministry had taken this campaign seriously and sent people around to tourist sites and lodges, asking tourists to upload the messages, it would have worked,” says Ketter. “But this campaign wasn’t budgeted and was run amateurishly. There was a point where call girls hijacked the campaign because they were frustrated that tourists weren’t visiting them, and so they uploaded naked photos of themselves and put the same hashtag – and that was not the campaign’s intention!”

Lebanon is another neighboring country with a problematic security image, but it still attracted 1.3 million tourists in 2013. Ketter says its Tourism Ministry ran a social network campaign based around the theme “Live love Lebanon.”

“People were photographed in all kinds of fun situations, which highlighted the uniqueness of the country with the emphasis on the residents’ joie de vivre, restaurants and nightlife,” explains Ketter. “According to the Lebanese Tourism Ministry, the campaign with this hashtag succeeded in generating 120,000 status updates and over six million ‘likes.’ It was promoted intensively within Lebanon. There were PR stunts, and it created a buzz on social network sites.”

Don’t obfuscate, don’t hide

A second way of handling crises is by using strategies that focus on the message itself, and try to manage the negative images by trying to narrow the dimensions of the event, or to acknowledge it, contradict it or deny it.

“In Israel, we want to deal directly with the message that the country is dangerous, so let’s look at Thailand,” says Ketter. “In recent years, Thailand has attracted 25 million tourists annually, even though it endured numerous political upheavals, live fire on demonstrators, a curfew in Bangkok and terror attacks. How? Thailand was very open about the crisis and pursued a media strategy of sending a contradictory message and reducing the dimensions of the crisis.”

There was a live feed on the homepage of the Thai Tourism Ministry, showing streams from cameras at tourist sites like Bangkok’s Khao San Road and Phuket, which showed that life was serene, and people getting tans and sitting in bars. “That way, the potential tourist could see with his own eyes that the situation was not what the media was saying. In order to reduce the dimensions of the crisis, they uploaded a map showing in which places there were demonstrations in Bangkok and recommended not going there, but they showed other places where everything was quiet,” Ketter adds.

“The Israeli Tourism Ministry does a good job and doesn’t work in easy conditions. But it doesn’t want to deal with the crisis openly. There is certainly room to handle a debate with tourists and tell them there are places that are less safe and places that are safer. Today, when you go to the Tourism Ministry’s English-language website, you see they don’t openly and directly deal with the crisis. One can learn from countries like Thailand, who admit that there is a problem and to having safer or more dangerous places. That is how you become a reliable and relevant, trustworthy source. If the website presents a ‘business as usual’ image and the tourist knows this isn’t the case, then he’s left with questions.”

In what other ways can you influence the message? Ketter cites Turkey, a tourist empire that drew 37 million visitors in 2014. The country produces TV soap operas that are distributed in North Africa and Eastern Europe, attracting some 85 million viewers.

“Eighteen months ago, research was conducted to examine how many people watch Turkish soap operas in each country, and how many people visit Turkey from each of these countries. They found that the more people watch the soap operas in a given country, the more likely that country’s residents are to visit Turkey. It’s a known phenomenon in the world of tourism. When we manage to create interesting cultural products in which the featured destination is presented as an attractive site, it serves as an inspiration for people to visit.”

In Israel, for example, the Tourism Ministry produced an hour-long YouTube video with a Chinese pop star who was filmed touring Israel with a tour guide, until they fall in love and kiss against the backdrop of Jerusalem. “These are important things that turn the site’s scenery into an inspiration for tourists. When someone thinks about a special, romantic place for a honeymoon, this image will be in his head,” explains Ketter. “Still, the video’s success was limited because, from what I understand, the star has been in decline and they failed to generate sufficient PR or promotion. The initiative was good, but the promotion wasn’t strong enough.”

Change the audience

The third strategy focuses on target audiences and trying to connect with them, or dropping the target audience for one that is more likely to visit the destination.

“Israel looks westward, seeks the British, Americans and Germans, who will be amazed by Israel. It could be that we need to make a change and look eastward, and not only toward the Chinese,” says Ketter. “The Tourism Ministry opened an office in India and needs to look closely at what is possible in Indian and perhaps African markets. A few years ago, they were considering Muslim tourism. It could be politically complex, but they have an interest in holy sites in Israel and are less bothered by terror.”

Ketter concedes that it’s not like there’s a feast “on the table, just waiting for us to take it. But we need to see how to build the Indian and Chinese markets over time, and how to deepen penetration into [religious] markets, so there won’t be a Catholic church where the name of Israel isn’t mentioned.” He says that just as every Muslim sees himself visiting Mecca, Israel needs to sharpen the perception that every Christian must see Jerusalem and Nazareth in his lifetime. “The Tourism Ministry is working in that direction, but my impression is that this work can be ramped up.”

Ketter doesn’t pretend there’s a marketing strategy that no one else has tried, or that he and his partner are pulling a rabbit out of the hat.

“We are in a complex reality,” he concludes. “Israel’s image in the world is declining, and there is no possibility of turning it around in a day. But a combination of improving the physical reality of the tourist product, together with marketing work on every channel and social network, can reverse the trend and bring back billions of shekels that we lost because of the damage to tourism.”