Jerusalem mayor sees vast potential in tourism (AP) Associated Press) By JOSEF FEDERMAN JERUSALEM, ISRAEL 04/05/12 5:07 am ET)
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JERUSALEM 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 he can nearly triple 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
Since taking office 3 1/2 years ago, Barkat, 52, 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
Barkat says Jerusalem attracted some 3.5 million tourists last year.
That number is higher than the 2.7 million estimate given by the
Tourism Ministry a discrepancy caused in part by the difficulty of
measuring the number of visitors who come for the day and do not stay
overnight in hotels.
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 ministry says Jerusalem is a
central aspect of its efforts to market Israel internationally.
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
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
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, ancient burial
sites can potentially be found in virtually every corner of the city.
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
The lack of hotel space has driven up prices, with rates in upper-end
hotels starting at $450 a night.
"In Jerusalem´s present form, the city falls hopelessly short," said
Kevin Bermeister, an Australian businessman who has developed an
independent "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."
There are "no instant solutions other than to promote investment one
building at a time, one road at a time," said Bermeister, whose
record includes being a founding investor in the popular Internet
communications service Skype.
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
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 to private hotel operators 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
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
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,"
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.
He also believes the 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
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. (© 2012 The Associated Press 04/05/12)
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