2020 Vision: How Jerusalem Hopes to Attract 4 Million More Tourists

The capital has ambitious plans to become a major tourist attraction. It wants to brand itself separately from the rest of Israel and lure independent travelers, but a lack of public transportation and hotel rooms need addressing first.

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Golden brand? Jerusalem believes it can attract many more tourists.
Golden brand? Jerusalem believes it can attract many more tourists.Credit: AP

“Jerusalem is the entire country’s tourism anchor. It is carrying [Israeli] tourism on its back,” says Ilanit Melchior, director of tourism for the Jerusalem Development Authority.

Melchior is in favor of separating tourism promotion of Jerusalem from that of the rest of the country, and insists that these are two different concepts. “All over the world there is branding of cities and not of countries, too,” she notes. “People say Barcelona and not Spain, London and not England. In recent years, our goal has been to differentiate the Jerusalem product, which is the leading tourism product in the country – and then other cities can piggy-back on it,” she said.

Without doubt, Jerusalem is Israel’s main tourism city. The Tourism Ministry’s survey of incoming tourists for 2013 showed that 75% of visitors come to Jerusalem, and the five leading tourist destinations are all situated in the capital: 68% of tourists visit the Western Wall; 64% visit the Jewish Quarter of the Old City; 57% visit the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; 55% visit the Via Dolorosa; and 53% visit the Mount of Olives.

The city will present a five-year plan for 2016-2021 to the government for approval in the next few months. This will continue the work of a previous plan to promote ways to strengthen Jerusalem and its economic and tourism development. Some 30% of the budget will be dedicated to tourism, said Melchior.

The plan was written in coordination with two U.S. professors: Harvard Business School’s Michael E. Porter, who visited Israel last week as part of the Jerusalem 2020 conference; and University of Toronto’s Richard Florida, an urban economist and theoretician. The plan is based on Porter’s principle of competitive advantage, which states that in order to develop a city’s economy, you must identify its relative competitive advantages, and develop and improve them – and one of these is urban tourism.

This part of the plan focuses on creating a specialized marketing campaign for Jerusalem, with an emphasis on the countries that potential tourists come from. It will focus particularly on independent tourists – those who don’t arrive in organized groups – and sports and cultural tourism: for example, those tourists visiting for the Jerusalem Marathon or cultural events such as the Festival of Light or Opera Festival [both held in June], which can serve as an anchor for attracting tourists.

“So far, we have appealed to tourists coming as families,” says Melchior. “Now, we will ensure that there are long-term packages, and we will market them to families – since Europeans are used to spending their vacations on 10 day- to two-week-trips with the family,” she said.

‘International conferences’

Another form of tourism the JDA has neglected in recent years is conference tourism. Now the authority is trying to launch a conference bureau – something that doesn’t exist in Israel, despite its great potential as a destination for international conferences (during periods of quiet on the security front, anyway). The JDA plans to invest some 20 million shekels [$5.2 million] in the bureau and is in the process of hiring.

About 20 international conferences were held in Jerusalem last year, but the figure is not exact since there are no official reports on the matter. “If a conference takes place in a hotel, the JDA has no ability to know about it,” said Melchior. “The bureau will create a mechanism for synchronizing information between all those working in the conference industry, and make sure to offer them leads from all over the world,” she said. The bureau would provide conference organizers with information on various organizations looking for destinations for their conferences, and there will be a single body to connect the international industry with Jerusalem, noted Melchior.

The bureau’s model will be similar to that of others around the world: a marketing-sales platform to bring conferences to Jerusalem, assisting conference organizers with all their operations, offering added value and content, as well as advice on where to hold the actual conference.

“We will focus on the areas of medicine, biotech and high-tech,” said Melchior. There are conference bureaus even in tiny cities around the world, and the fact Jerusalem hasn’t had one has made it impossible for the city to be considered a major player in the conference industry, she added.

The new five-year plan presents very ambitious numbers concerning future Jerusalem tourism, and forecasts a 90% increase in tourist spend by 2020. This figure is based on a 25% increase in the number of overnight stays in the capital (4.2 nights per tourist, compared to 3.36 today); a 15% increase in tourist spend per day; and a 35% increase in the number of tourists visiting Jerusalem.

These are certainly optimistic numbers, and they ignore the existing shortage of hotel rooms in Jerusalem. Currently, the city is in the midst of a tourism crisis, with hotel occupancy rates lower than in previous years. But in good times – such as before Operation Protective Edge in Gaza last summer – most hotels in the capital had very high occupancy rates, which led to higher prices and forcing both Israelis and foreign tourists to stay elsewhere, outside the city.

In 2010, there were 9,320 hotel rooms in Jerusalem, and this number had increased only 6% by 2014. Another 600 rooms are expected to be added this year, but this is not a number that will bring any significant change to the capital’s hotel industry – certainly not if we take into account the Tourism Ministry’s figures from 2009, when it had determined that Jerusalem was lacking some 9,500 hotel rooms at the time to fulfill its potential. Since then, only about 1,100 more hotel rooms have been built.

A relatively encouraging figure is that the JDA’s forecast shows there will be some 13,000 hotel rooms in the city by 2019: a 42% increase over 2010. But even this rise will not succeed in supplying the needs of all the tourists who want to spend their nights in Jerusalem, and will certainly not be able to meet the authority’s dream of 6 million tourists in the capital.

International chains are scheduled to open new hotels in Jerusalem over the next couple of years: the Four Seasons will open its first hotel in the capital next to the German Colony, with some 200 rooms; W Hotels, meanwhile, will open a 250-room hotel. Another luxury chain building its first property in the city is Marriott, with a 100-room hotel in the center of the city, near the Mahane Yehuda market.

Less exclusive hotels, but still international brands, will be opening soon, too. The Ibis chain is planning at least two hotels in Jerusalem: the first will be in an existing building on the Ben Yehuda pedestrian mall, with 120 rooms; the second will open on nearby Aristobulus Street, with 110 rooms.

In addition, at the end of August a new hostel, Post, is scheduled to open above the old central post office on Jaffa Road, in the center of town, with 43 rooms. Melchior says the owners’ desire to open the hostel stems from the success of the Abraham Hostel, which opened not far away – near the Mahane Yehuda market – at the end of 2010. Because of the Open Skies policy [an aviation agreement between Israel and the European Union], many people have been arriving on low-cost flights, choosing to sleep in a cheap hostel and spending their money on cultural content, she says. “The minute the Abraham Hostel succeeded, we have seen [more] young entrepreneurship,” observed Melchior.

‘Connecting the tourist sites’

The plan deals also with the infrastructure needed for tourism in the capital. “If you want to bring in FIT [foreign independent travel], these tourists must [be able to] get around on foot. To do that, we are going to invest in connecting between the tourist sites,” said Melchior. The plan places an emphasis on developing open public spaces around the museums, which will be branded as tourism sites. “Today, there is no physical connection between the museums for pedestrians, no presence of urban activity centers and lighting, and no contextual connection of a unified concept for the space,” states the five-year tourism plan.

In addition, the plan discusses the area known as the “Cultural Mile,” which connects the First Station complex to the Old City. This will include – among many things – new signs informing tourists of where they are and what they’re looking at, as well as other places to visit in the area – a common practice in other tourist destinations around the world.

Another concern discussed in the plan relates to public transportation. This is one of the most problematic areas for independent tourists anywhere in the country, not just Jerusalem. It’s not just the lack of public transportation on the Sabbath, which forces tourists to rent cars: access to many sites is often quite problematic, also.

The capital’s light rail system may have solved some of the capital’s transport problems, but for foreign tourists – who are used to all-day travel on public transportation that include buses and trains – there is still no true solution. “We are in advanced negotiations, which will take a few more months, with the Transportation Ministry. But the goal is to create a daily ticket that combines the two forms of [public] transport in the city, which will be on sale in hotels and available for tourists. One ticket for 10 rides is not appropriate for tourists,” said Melchior.

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