Uzi Landau, who has served as the Israeli minister of tourism since March 2013, has been in Israeli politics for almost three decades, since 1984. He started in 1984 and announced Dec. 28 that he plans to retire from politics. A former senior member of Likud and now a member of the nationalist Israel Beiteinu party, Landau, 71, has served as minister of public security, a member of the security cabinet, and a minister in the prime minister’s office overseeing Israeli intelligence, secret services and the U.S.-Israel strategic dialogue. The Jewish Week caught up with him after his recent trip to the United States. This is an edited transcript.
Q: 2014 was supposed to have been a record year for tourism to Israel, but the Gaza war last summer forced many cancellations. How are things now?
A: It is starting to pick up again. And until the Gaza war we were expecting tourism to be higher than 2013. Although the number of tourists who visited the country and spent one night is not much different compared to the previous year, the total number of visitors — including those who came in the morning and left in the evening — will be 7 percent less than in 2013.
How do bookings look for next year?
That is what is worrying us — future reservations. And that is why I was recently in the states to speak with those who are potentially our people — supporters of the country, people who love the country for a variety of different reasons. I came to remind them that when it comes to Jerusalem, tourists who visit are enjoying the city of inspiration and the spiritual capital of the globe. Those who wish to see a different style will find Tel Aviv more alive than ever.
We’d heard that tourism was very good in the first half of 2014.
Things had been going very well, but they’re not back to normal. Hotels that are normally 100 percent occupancy are now around 70 percent. There are places where that figure is higher, such as Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea. And there have been disturbances in Jerusalem, which suggest that the place is unsafe. But Israel is very, very safe.
What kind of a reception did you get during your trip here?
When I was in Philadelphia, I met with leaders of the Evangelical and Hispanic communities. One of them told me they did not cancel any programs and feel as safe as ever in Israel.
Safety is a very relative issue. When you see reporting through our TV friends, there is a feeling that there are shootings on every street corner. But the fact is that mothers here send their children to school unescorted — I’m not sure that is true in Europe. EL Al is the safest airline in the world. And Ben Gurion is the safest airport. But the FAA ban on air traffic [during the Gaza war] caused us much damage and added to the belief that things were not safe here.
According to Palestinian tourism officials, 60 percent of room bookings in the territories were canceled following the Gaza war. As a result, there were about 100,000 fewer tourists than in 2013.
I’m very sorry to hear that because we wish that our Palestinian neighbors not only enjoy tourism but also do well economically — and tourism is important with respect to that. On the eve of Christmas, I held a reception for our Christian citizens. Some 70,000 tourists came to Israel for Christmas, and our ministry had a free shuttle service from Jerusalem to Bethlehem for the day before Christmas and Christmas day. We did that in previous years as well.
We are proud to preserve the rights of all minorities and the right to freedom of religious expression. There is nothing like that in our neighboring countries. The safest place for a Christian in the Middle East is Israel.
What is happening to tourism from such countries as Russia and China?
Because of the economic situation in Russia, we are afraid it will hurt tourism significantly. The ruble has suffered a 50 percent loss of its value to the dollar in recent weeks.
China is picking up, however. In a meeting I had with officials from Hainan Airlines here a month ago they declared their intention to have direct flights from Beijing in the summer. There are around 100 million Chinese tourists a year. Eight-five percent tour in the Far East, yet 15 percent look towards Europe and the U.S., including Israel. We’d like to increase our share of that.