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Onward Christian Tourists

Onward Christian Tourists

As foreign tourism increases, new Israeli focus on Christian and general markets in U.S.

Haim Gutin, who recently became Israel’s tourism commissioner for North and South America, has been with the Tourism Ministry since 1982. He previously served here as consul for Tourism, director of the Israel Government Tourist Office in the northeastern U.S. and acting tourism commissioner for North America. He spoke with The Jewish Week last week about where Israel’s tourist industry stands on the cusp of a new year.

Jewish Week: We’re hearing from visitors to Israel that the streets and hotels are packed with tourists. What are the latest figures?

Gutin: In October, we had more than 400,000 tourists — a one-month record. It was up 23 percent over last October and 32 percent more than October 2008. By the end of December, we expect close to 700,000 visitors from the United States, and we will be very close to having a record total of 3.2 million visitors.

How did Israel’s hotels handle the crowds last month?

Jerusalem had no vacancies, so many visitors went to hotels in Bethlehem. The country was packed all over. In Beersheba and Arad it was very difficult to get a room, and it appears to be much the same this month.

To what do you attribute this tourist boom?

The late Jewish holidays this year pushed a lot of holiday traffic to October. In addition, the state has done a good job in promoting Israel. And a big part of it is that two years ago Russia stopped requiring a visa to go to Israel and Ukraine stopped this year. So we’re seeing brand-new visitors, and we’re running different tourism campaigns all over the world. Our campaign in North and South America started to run this month, and tour operators are saying it looks like the numbers will continue to grow in 2011.

Has the tourism office done anything differently
to attract visitors?

In the last few years we conducted a study that said we have to be focused on the Christian and general markets in the U.S. That’s why our efforts in 2011 will be focused on those two markets with campaigns that are around $12 million. … We see growth in the general traffic to Israel from sophisticated travelers — those who are coming for history, culture and religious reasons.

Almost 50 percent of American tourists are from the general market — including Jewish tourists — and 50 percent are from the Christian market. Jews come primarily for the holidays. Of the 5.5 million Jews in America, half have visited since 1948.

The Christian market is becoming a very strong market that we are pushing a lot. It was always a strong market and we would like it to stay that way. They have become our advocates and cooperate with Jewish leadership.

What about the Jewish market?

I would like to see growth in the Jewish market — to see that more Jewish people go to Israel, especially unaffiliated Jews who do not attend synagogues. I would like to see them go with their families and celebrate a bar mitzvah.

What is Israel going to do to handle the capacity crowds?

We are starting to build hotels and are looking for new investors in the tourism industry. We need another 40,000 rooms; there are 42,000 now. Many hotels are now undergoing renovation and the government has put a lot of money to help with that.

We’re also planning a program that will rate the hotels using a set of standards. There will be an international tender next year and we’ll choose a company like AAA. Each hotel now gives its own designation.

In two years, a 200-room Waldorf Astoria is to open in Jerusalem, and a 120-room Ritz Hotel is to open in Herzlyia in three to four years. It will be the first time those hotels will be in Israel. And Kempinski, the German hotel chain, is also coming for the first time. All three are luxury hotels.

The signs in Israel are in Hebrew, English and Arabic and if you rent a car with a GPS, you can ago around by yourself if you have already been to Israel. Or you can use local transportation. It’s hoped that a light rail system will begin in April in Jerusalem.

What do you say to people who are hesitant to go to Israel because they have already been there?

Many people who have been to Israel are now going to Eilat, and are also hiking, biking and doing other outdoor activities. They want to see something new; that’s why they are spending time in different regions. We’re seeing a big growth in visitors to the Negev, the Galilee, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.

Tel Aviv has always been popular.

It was just announced as the third best city in the world by the guidebook “Lonely Planet.” It is becoming like New York, Rio and Paris at night — a city that everybody loves to come and visit. Europeans come for a city break and for weekends to shop and enjoy.