It’s 5 P.M. on the second of day of last week’s ITB Berlin, the world’s biggest tourism conference and exhibition, and the Israel pavillion is starting to empty out. In another hour or so there will be no one left but the security guards and later the cleaning people.
But at the other national pavilions, the night is still young. They begin serving food and drinks and even stage dance performances. At the Palestinian Authority stand, passersby are tempted with meat and vegetable dumplings, drawing visitors in to look at brochures and chat with the Tourism Ministry representatives.
A few steps away is the Rwanda pavilion, which is offering a folk dance performance, drawing in visitors who pull out smartphones to video the spectacle and in all likelihood spread it through their social networks.
At the pavilions sponsored by German cities and travel companies, are feted with min-parties of music and beer and wine.
“The dancing, the action and the free spirit the others have attracts attention. It’s a pity they don’t do anything like that at the Israel booth,” said Mark Shariki, a German travel agent who works with the Israeli tourism industry.
“Israel is battling for public opinion and here it’s the biggest stage there is, a one-time opportunity where hundreds of thousands of people are watching. You need to maximize the show, which they’re not doing,” he said.
The Palestinian pavilion. Photo by Rina Rozenberg
He faulted the Israeli pavilion for being “bland and formal.” “Yes, the situation is difficult, but it’s in difficult times that I would offer music and a little falafel. The Palestinian Authority has no budget but they put out food, created some buzz and people stood in line,” he said.
At least some Israeli tourism officials were wont to agree. “Our pavilion looked formal and fuddy-duddy,” said one, who asked not to be identified. “They say were an innovative country but the way we present ourselves doesn’t send that message at all. We have a reputation for being brazen but there was nothing brazen or daring.”
The booths sponsored by the cities of Netanya and Haifa were little different from one touting Tel Aviv, even though Tel Aviv is supposed to be a main tourism destination for gays. There was no hint that it’s the city that never sleeps. Amazingly, the Jerusalem both did nothing to draw attention to the city’s history or religious sites.
While Egypt and Turkey rented entire pavilions for their national exhibits, Israel opted to share one with Jordan, Lebanon and a clutch of other countries. The Israeli part covered just 700 square meters and cost the Tourism Ministry a mere 2 million shekels ($500,000).
The Egyptian exhibit. Photo by Rina Rozenberg
All of it does little to tap new sources of tourism. “Every year it’s the same thing,” complained Shai Asia, executive vice president for Crowne Plaza and Holiday Inn Hotels in Israel. “The same travel agents, who were already known, come to the Israeli pavilion. But I can’t afford not be there for the exhibition. If I’m not here, I don’t exist.”
Israeli tourism officials and travel agents who work with Israel say the last few months have been difficult for selling Israel as a destination. One German travel agent asked whether Operation Protective Edge, the 50-day war Israel fought with Hamas over the summer, was over.
“The last images people have of Israel are from Protective Edge, which stated in the final days of the World Cup, in other words at the peak of the television ratings period” said Shlomo Almagor, a German travel agent. “Since then, there’ve been no new images of Israel that would show it any different. So that’s what left in people’s minds.”
A Swedish travel agent added: “Israel never comes down from the headlines – in a negative way. We can’t sell Israel as a destination so we have no choice but to put our sales efforts into other countries.”
Shariki, who has worked in tourism for 35 years, said he has trouble getting a full complement of travelers for the groups he organized. There have been many ups and down in Israeli tourism over the years, but right now the recovery is taking an unusually long time.
“It used to take three months for things to return to normal, but now six months have passed and we’re still far from the numbers we had before the war,” he said. “I work with clergymen and Christian groups and they say that people are afraid.”
Tourism industry executive also faulted the Tourism Ministry, few of whom showed up for the event at all. “This is a fair the draws agents from all over the world and you want people here from the Tourism Ministry that speak with potential wholesales on money for promotion so they can market us,” said Oni Amiel, whose Amiel Tours organizes group visiting Israel.
I response, the ministry cited figures showg that tourism from Germany had risen 2% in January, compared with a year ago. It said the company that designed and built the pavilion was in the last year of its contract and was due to be replaced.