Recent months have witnessed a flurry of tourism-related events in Israel, ranging from an international tourism summit and light shows in Jerusalem to a mass gay parade in Tel Aviv, indicating an intensified campaign in the country to promote its image as a safe and attractive tourist destination.
Tourism, along with the agriculture, high-tech and arms sectors, has been a major source of hard currency for Israel. In 2012, some 3.5 million people visited Israel, a 4-percent increase over 2011, with tourism generating 9.6 billion U.S. dollars in revenues for the country.
As much of the Middle East region remain bogged down in political turmoil, Israel has become a major destination for tourists from Europe, the United States and Russia, maintaining a rapid growth in tourist arrivals for three consecutive years from 2010 to 2012. But the trend was at the risk of being reversed due to a brief large-scale conflict between Israel and Palestinian armed groups in the Gaza Strip last November.
On Nov. 14, Israel launched a deadly offensive on the Gaza Strip, which killed over 160 Palestinians and injured some 1,200 others. In retaliation, Palestinian resistance fighters incessantly fired rockets and missiles onto Israeli cities, killing at least five Israelis, including one soldier.
The eight-day conflict, during which missiles were fired from Gaza toward Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, led to mass cancellations and a slow-down in future tourist reservations, plunging Israel's tourism sector into a crisis. In November, tourism dropped some 43 percent from the same period of the previous year, according to official figures.
President of the Israel Hotel Association Ami Federman once warned according to preliminary estimates of the group, an annual reduction of about 10 percent in tourism was expected in 2013 in Israel following the military operation in Gaza. "Since Operation Pillar of Defense, we are faced with a crisis in incoming tourism, due to our image of an unsafe country," he said.
As a result of the impact of the Gaza conflict, tourist arrivals in Israel dropped the first two months in 2013 a row, a 6- percent drop for January and an 8-percent slump for February, when compared to the same periods last year.
The slipping trend, however, was reversed in March, during which a 1-percent rise in the number of tourist entries was registered. In May, tourist arrivals hit an all-time high of 283, 000, 5 percent up year on year, according to figures from the tourism ministry.
The Israeli Tourism Ministry attributed the swift recovery in tourism to its increased marketing investment following the conflict along the Gaza border. The ministry has spent a total of 33 million shekels (around 9 million dollars) on marketing and advertising activities in the United States, Russia and other major markets.
Besides the intensified marketing activities, the Israeli government also took some vital steps to protect and promote the country's tourism in the long run -- approving the controversial open skies agreement and keeping the tourism sector exempt from value-added tax (VAT).
In April 2013, the Israeli cabinet approved the signing of the Open Skies agreement with the EU, under which the cost of flights between Israel and EU member states will be greatly reduced through increased competition. According to data from the Federation of Israeli Economic Organizations, the agreement will lead to an increase of 250,000 tourists from Europe during the first year of its operation.
The government headed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu also decided to reject a proposal by the Finance Ministry to impose VAT on foreign tourists in order to increase revenues. Foreign tourists have long been exempt from VAT and the proposal had aroused much concern in the tourism sector.
In addition, a series of tourism-related events have been organized across the country by local governments or tourism authorities. In Tel Aviv, an annual grand gay parade was held last Friday, further consolidating the city's gay-friendly image to the world. In Jerusalem, a nine-day long light show is on display in the Old City, attracting thousands of visitors every night. Also, a Formula 1 race will be held near the Old City of Jerusalem this week.
In Israel's northern Galilee region, a dragon boat contest was held in the lake of Galilee in early May, and more events, such as a music festival and a fishing tournament, will take place in the coming months in cities in the region, bordering war-torn Syria. The Galilee region, famous for historic religious sites, wines and gourmet, attracted 1.5 million foreign visitors in 2012. Many wineries in the area, such as Adir and Tulip, set up visitors' centers for tourists to taste wines, combining tourism with the local culture.
Encouraged by robust growth in tourism in the past few years, Netanyahu set a goal of 10 million tourists annually in a decade. "We have doubled the number of tourists in the last few years from 1.5 million to 3 million per year and we need to double this number again and continue its growth. Our goal is to reach 10 million tourists a year in a decade," he told a tourism meeting in Jerusalem last month.