The first event of its kind explored the exploding global tourism industry and how Israel’s cities can be branded as unique destinations.

Jerusalem hosts International Tourism Conference


PM Netanyahu and Nir Barkat, Mayor of Jerusalem, at Israel's first International Tourism Conference

By Avigayil Kadesh

The time was certainly ripe for Jerusalem to host its first International Tourism Conference. A record-breaking 3.45 million tourists visited Israel in 2010, more than 25 percent higher than the previous year, and 2011 could beat that record as tourism levels have nearly tripled in the past decade. Just days before the conference, 1,000 foreign visitors had joined 9,000 Israelis for Jerusalem’s inaugural full marathon.

This first conference of its kind, held in Jerusalem’s International Conference Center from March 29-31, let hoteliers, tour group operators and other tourism professionals hear from leading representatives of the airline, hotel, cultural, technology and media fields as well as government officials.

Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat opened the conference with Chris Matthews of NBC/MSNBC and MTV Networks International founder Bill Roedy.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov took the opportunity to announce some groundbreaking initiatives to reach Netanyahu’s stated goal of seeing more tourists than citizens in Israel.

Among these initiatives, said Misezhnikov, are increasing grants to new hotel enterprises from 20 percent to 28%; awarding 10% grants to entrepreneurs planning new tourist attractions; and expanding priority areas to include Eilat, the Lower Galilee, the Negev and the Beit Shean Valley. The Tourism Ministry’s budget has been doubled for 2011-2012, he said.

Hotel expansion projects

Noting that every satisfied tourist becomes a good-will ambassador for Israel, Misezhnikov revealed that "six major projects are waiting to begin, and we are investing in a broad recruiting campaign to attract personnel to the tourism sector and build 10,000 more hotel rooms so we can provide for one million more tourists than last year. We will also spend tens of millions of shekels to upgrade existing hotels."

About 3,100 additional rooms are expected to be ready by the end of this year, about one-third of them in Jerusalem, 660 near Lake Kinneret in the Galilee region and about 440 others in the northern Negev and Tel Aviv.

Among the new hotels will be a luxury Ritz Carlton on the Tel Aviv coast within the next two years, said Kathleen Matthews, a vice president of Marriott International. Having just opened the tallest hotel in the world, in Hong Kong, Marriott also "wants to be in iconic places such as Jerusalem," Matthews told conference participants. "Our hotels are inextricably linked to the story of the cities we are in."

"We have a memorandum of understanding for another project in Tel Aviv on the border between the new and old parts of the city, and later this week I am looking at prospective sites in Jerusalem," said Matthews. "The international traveler feels more comfortable coming if they recognize brands with which they have had experience," she said. "To do that, we take advantage of the branding of cities."

Cities as brands

"Brands define cities in a precise way," said Dr. Teemu Moilanen, a place branding specialist from Finland who was a featured speaker at the conference. "Branding is not a slogan but an identity: Paris is romance, Las Vegas is entertainment, Milan is style, Barcelona is culture."

"City branding is meant to lead to an emotional relationship with the consumer," added panelist Eugene Jaffe, professor emeritus in the graduate school of business administration at Bar-Ilan University and author of books including The Theory and Practice of Place Branding. "But you have to find a unique characteristic. Holon, the ‘Children’s City’, is a successful example of a complete transformation." He was referring to the Tel Aviv suburb that turned around its lackluster image and made a name for itself among young families by creating "story parks," museums and other unique cultural magnets especially for children.

"International festivals can help cities differentiate themselves," said Jaffe. This is one tactic being successfully employed by the Jerusalem Development Authority (JDA). "It’s part of our strategy to position Jerusalem as a global tourism destination for cultural activities such as the Opera Festival that will take place here in June," says Ilanit Melchior, tourism director for the JDA and an organizer of the conference. "We already have 1,100 packages sold for the Opera Festival and we had 1,000 foreign visitors for the marathon. When you have the right product, people will buy it."

Jerusalem hosts International Tourism Conference

Plans are afoot to increase tourism to Jerusalem from two million visitors a year to 10 million within a decade. (Photo courtesy Israel Ministry of Tourism)

Prominent Israeli attorney Yehuda Raveh, a major player in financing and infrastructure in Israel, called Jerusalem "the most famous brand in the world" and revealed that according to surveys, 80% of first-time tourists to Israel want to visit Jerusalem. "The mayor wants to bring in 10 million tourists by 2015," Raveh said, "and if we have a peaceful situation, this could be achieved."

However, said Eli Cohen, head of marketing strategy, service and corporate responsibility for Bank Hapoalim, "We certainly think and hope peace will come eventually, but the tourism industry realizes we don’t have to wait for a peace agreement. We can act now."

Cohen pointed out that "over the last five years, Israel – and particularly Jerusalem – has gotten onto the international tourism map. We’ve opened the skies; flights from Europe are cheaper and there are more airlines flying here. But we have a lack of hotel rooms, and another obstacle is that we have only one international airport. If we build another international airport in Eilat, it would [lead to] reduced ticket prices and provide another hub for tourists using Israel as a hub from South Africa to Europe, for example. The potential is huge."

Seven years ago, Tel Aviv began being marketed as a City Break destination, said Cohen, "and now it is one of the capitals of tourism in the world – better than London, rivaling even New York. This came together with improvements in infrastructure, the same thing the mayor of Jerusalem is doing in the capital city. We can promote ‘Holy Break to Jerusalem’ tours after there are enough hotel rooms."

Strategic Jerusalem

Melchior says the JDA, together with the Jerusalem Hotel Association, is pursuing a hard-sell targeted marketing approach. "We are taking products such as the marathon or City Break and specifying which audiences in which countries can be targeted. We will do a massive campaign, mostly through the Internet, so that we can measure response."

Also, she added, "In seasons when occupancy is low, we’re trying to make natural connections between content and destination, offering extras such as special tour guides and reduced prices in restaurants and museums. We are welcoming to tourists as individuals and in groups, by making tailor-made tours. We are investing in infrastructure, cleaning, building more hotel rooms or renovating old hotels. In the past two years, we see that people are coming to Jerusalem for business and pleasure, creating a positive atmosphere and high demand."

Melchior said it was no accident that the international tourism conference was positioned in the capital city. "Having it in Jerusalem makes a statement that this city is about tourism and not just about politics," she said. "Jerusalem has 3,500 years of history and 3.5 billion people on earth want to come to Jerusalem. There’s a huge opportunity that has not yet been developed around Jerusalem. It’s an unbelievable brand," Jerusalem mayor Barkat told delegates on the last day of the conference.

Last year, he said that some two million people visited Israel’s capital city and that the municipality’s goal was to raise that number to 10 million tourists a year within a decade. "That’s significantly more tourists than we have now, but significantly less than leading cities in other parts of the world," he explained. "It’s an achievable goal."

Aside from city tourism, Barkat said there are plans to target religious tourism, sports tourism, business tourism and even medical tourism. As part of this move, he also added, there are plans to encourage the film industry to Jerusalem to shoot feature films. "In history Jerusalem has always been a significant destination for Jews and non Jews alike, for people who want to practice their faith. It’s our vision to return that role to the city," he said.

Pini Shani, director of the International Department at the Ministry of Tourism, says the event was a cooperative effort between municipality and the ministry and "fit our goal to brand Jerusalem as a city that can offer history, religion and much more. Jerusalem used to be one of leading cities in world in national conventions – before the intifada, it was No. 4 in the world – and this was part of an effort to start the process of bringing back international conventions to Jerusalem."

Innovators and entrepreneurs adding their perspectives to the conference included Diego Lofeundo, Expedia’s director of market management (Eastern Med and Africa), PayPal regional director Oded Zehavi and Google director Meir Brand, who were part of a popular panel discussing the impact of technology on the tourism industry. Brand told delegates that today more than 90 percent of tourists do intensive research online before they make travel decisions. "The research process is quite long," he explained. "People generally do 55 searches before they make a purchase."

Leading hotel designer Michael Bedner, Financial Times special representative David Applefield, and Israel Museum director James Snyder were joined by the directors of New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, Amsterdam’s Van Gogh Museum, Chicago’s Art Institute and St. Petersburg’s Hermitage Museum – and Ambassador Zoltan Somogyi from the United Nations World Tourism Organization to discuss innovation in hotel design.

Jerusalem Post Editor-in-Chief David Horovitz and place-branding specialist Naftali Spitzer of Shir & Spitzer discussed the tourism challenges posed by the region’s political climate.