Jerusalem mayor sees vast potential in tourism

Published April 5, 2012 6:54AM (EDT)

JERUSALEM (AP) — When Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat stares out at his city, the one-time venture capitalist sees fresh opportunity: He believes he can turn Jerusalem into one of the world's leading tourist destinations, on par with New York, Paris and London.

In a city known as much for its religious strife as its religious sites, this will be no simple task. But Barkat, sounding very much like the businessman he once was, says he has a product that's easy to market. He confidently predicts a tripling of the number of visitors over the next decade.

"There are very few cities like Jerusalem that have such potential, with over 3.5 billion people on Earth who would like to come visit Jerusalem at least once in their lifetime," he said in an interview. "The brand Jerusalem is one of the most powerful brands in the world."

Since taking office 3 ½ years ago, Barkat has presided over an ambitious development plan that has brought in new sporting and cultural events, opened a light rail system that has helped renew the long-neglected city center and boosted the number of international visitors by a third, according to the Tourism Ministry. In April alone, some 300,000 people are expected for the Easter and Passover holidays.

Barkat says Jerusalem attracted some 3.5 million tourists last year. That number is higher than the 2.7 million figure the Tourism Ministry cites — a discrepancy probably caused by the difficulty of measuring day trips. Both are estimates, and part of the question is how many of the measurable population of overall tourists to the country come to Jerusalem.

When cities like Paris and New York get as many as 50 million visitors a year, Barkat says his goal of attracting 10 million tourists annually — about the level of Rome — is "just the tip of the iceberg of the potential of the city."

It is no wonder that Jerusalem is the country's leading tourist destination, attracting 80 percent of all those who visit Israel, according to the Tourism Ministry.

The word "Jerusalem" takes on almost magical connotations for many. Holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it is a city where biblical forefathers roamed the streets and is home to famed holy sites like the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the golden-capped Dome of the Rock.

History and intrigue seem to lurk inside every crevice of the city's cobblestone alleyways, bustling open-air marketplaces and parched hills. The city also has a biblical zoo, a surprisingly vibrant nightlife and culinary scene, a top learning institution in Hebrew University, the respected Israel Museum and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.

But problems also plague modern-day Jerusalem. It is among Israel's poorest cities, with rundown areas in both Jewish and Arab sections and an outdated road system often snarled with traffic. Relations between Jews and Arabs — and between religious and secular Jews — are often tense.

Any attempt at development, no matter how well meaning, can be politically explosive, as Barkat himself has learned. His plan to develop a ramshackle Arab neighborhood outside the walls of the Old City has run into fierce opposition from residents, who accuse the mayor of trying to cement Israel's control over the eastern part of the city that it occupied in the 1967 war — and which the Palestinians claim for their capital.

Israel claims the whole city as its capital and has annexed east Jerusalem — which the world community has not recognized. Some 200,000 Jews now live in the occupied area of the city alongside about 300,000 Palestinians, and 300,000 Jews live in the western part of Jerusalem — a diverse, combustible metropolis of almost a million.

Excavations have also sparked protests by Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox population, which objects to any construction that risks disturbing ancient Jewish graves. With 3,000 years of history, virtually every corner of the city is built upon an ancient burial site.

Tourism operators complain of more mundane problems. They say the dire shortage of hotel rooms and open space, narrow and overcrowded roads and a lack of parking are all serious constraints on future growth.

The lack of hotel space has driven up prices, with rates in upper-end hotels exceeding $450 a night.

"In Jerusalem's present form, the city falls hopelessly short," said Kevin Bermeister, an Australian businessman who — uninvited — has developed a 25-year "master plan" to improve the city's tourism industry. "Most of it relates to the absence of infrastructure and hotel rooms that could support 10 million tourists annually."

Bermeister, a founding investor in the popular Internet communications service Skype, said there are "no instant solutions other than to promote investment one building at a time, one road at a time."

Bermeister said he has enlisted architects, city planners and archaeologists into the so-called Jerusalem 5800 plan, which envisions well-planned real estate development, improved transportation through a system of tunnels and construction of an international airport. He said the gradual, 25-year effort would include the city's Arab and Jewish populations.

"Our principle here is economics," he said. "The idea is to lift the city out of its miserable poverty-stricken state."

Many of the proposals seem feasible, while others, such as placing the airport in the West Bank, appear unrealistic.

Both Barkat and the Israeli Tourism Ministry declined to comment on the plan, but the mayor made clear he is addressing many of these areas.

He said he expects current construction to raise the number of hotel rooms in the city by 20 percent this year to 12,000, and believes financial incentives will help double that number over the next decade.

Projects are in the works to build a 2,000-room hotel and convention center complex, with an eye toward attracting lucrative business travelers.

Jerusalem is also building a massive sports complex built that will host the country's national soccer stadium, an 11,000-seat basketball arena and an Olympic size swimming pool, all for international competition. The complex is expected to be done next year, he said.

While claiming that Jerusalem's traffic woes are less severe than other major cities', Barkat said billions of dollars of investments in public transportation will ease the problem in the coming years. Both the national government and private sector are participating, he said.

In the short term, Barkat, a culture buff and long-distance runner, has brought an array of street fairs and sporting events to the city. Last month, Jerusalem hosted its second annual marathon, drawing 1,500 international runners.

"Just having events physically located in the city, that creates a huge impact and a strong message that we're open for business," Barkat said.

Gal Mor, who operates the Abraham Hostel, a small hotel catering to backpackers and low-budget travelers, gave the mayor mixed reviews. "His vision is great. His execution is mediocre," he said.

While praising Barkat's commitment to improving tourism, Mor said doing business in Jerusalem still involves far too much red tape — and that government should create an insurance fund to protect hotel operators in case of war. After watching the tourism industry suffer during the Palestinian uprising a decade ago, Mor said the possibility of renewed fighting is his No. 1 fear.

Illustrating those concerns, a pair of racially motivated assaults, including the stabbing of a female Israeli soldier, have taken place on the light rail over the past month. And this week, an ultra-Orthodox man was wounded by an axe-wielding Arab assailant near the Old City.

Barkat said he is working hard to streamline bureaucracy. He insisted Jerusalem is "far safer" than major U.S. cities, despite the occasional violence that still makes headlines.

"Fighting an image is sometimes difficult, but the best way to fight it is to send 3.5 million good customers (home) every year, and that's where we are," he said.

By Salon Staff

MORE FROM Salon Staff

Related Topics ------------------------------------------