After speaking at the Republican Jewish Coalition at the Venetian Hotel in Las Vegas last March, I conversed with the hotel’s owner, Jewish philanthropist Sheldon Adelson. We were talking about Birthright Israel, founded by our mutual friend Michael Steinhardt.
As someone who has led Birthright trips and is a huge fan, I thanked Sheldon for being the group’s biggest financial supporter. He shared with me how he had recently called the head of Birthright in Israel to say he would add millions more dollars to his already-huge annual investment, to help clear the backlog of American students who wanted to participate on the free ten-day trip to the Jewish state. The problem, he was told, was that even with his generosity there simply weren’t enough hotel rooms in Jerusalem to add a few thousand more participants. I asked Sheldon how many hotel rooms there were in Las Vegas. About 150,000, he replied. I was startled. I had heard just about a year earlier from my friend Kevin Bermeister, the high-tech investor and global funder of Jewish causes for whom I serve as a consultant, that all of Jerusalem had only 10,000 hotel rooms.
For Kevin, Jerusalem’s woefully inadequate tourism infrastructure has become an obsession, and he’s already invested millions out of his pocket to launch Jerusalem 5800, a vast and comprehensive new plan for Jerusalem that was recently featured in The Times of Israel. The plan could raise Jerusalem’s current number of three million tourists to more than ten million by building 60,000 new hotel rooms, focusing on completing an average of 1,300 rooms every year for the next four decades. I’ve watched Kevin in conversation with Israeli leaders, arguing that in tourism lies the answer to so many of Jerusalem and Israel’s challenges, including and especially the horrendous fact that of Jerusalem’s 235,000 households, approximately 38 percent live in poverty — both Jews and Muslims. Kevin was adamant that a vastly expanded tourism business could provide 300,000 new jobs for unskilled labor, precisely the kind of work that many of Jerusalem’s Jewish religious citizens – who focus on Talmudic study rather than acquiring trade skills – would need, along with many of the Muslim citizens who are likewise untrained.
But for everything that I had learned from Kevin, including watching him spread out his massive Jerusalem 5800 map on the office walls of municipal officials, I had never seen or heard a first-person account of how the absence of hotel infrastructure is preventing the most successful Jewish educational initiative of all time from being even more successful. Was it really possible that one of the world’s most famous cities, and the center of world religion, could not accommodate more American Jewish students even when someone else paid?
For all those who are under the impression that Israel is maximizing its fullest tourism potential, the numbers become even more disappointing when we realize that London receives 14.7 million inbound international tourists per year, Paris 15.2 million, New York 9.7 million, and Singapore 9.2 million — and this only includes tourists who state on their landing cards the city they are first destined to visit. Jerusalem, as the crossroads of world civilization, has arguably much more to offer, but if the number of hotel rooms is not increased there is no way it can attract more people.
This lost opportunity is compounded by the fact that the large tour operators often ignore Jerusalem, because there isn’t enough volume for them to book en masse and receive the kinds of wholesale discounts that boosts their profit margins. The net result is that they do not choose Israel as one of the preferred destinations to which they funnel tourists.
But if Kevin is right, and by dramatically boosting the number of tourists we can simultaneously lift thousands out of poverty, it becomes imperative that we try. This is aside from the obvious benefit to the Jewish State of having millions of first-hand witnesses seeing for themselves the truth of Israeli life, rather than reading a biased version of it in the world’s press.
The current population of Jerusalem is approximately 820,000. Jews constitute 69 percent of the city and Muslims 31 percent. Among Jews, 65 percent are non-Orthodox while 35 percent are. Non-employment is high all round. About 40 percent of Israelis between the ages of 15 and 64 do not work, compared with an average of only 33 percent in other OECD countries. Some 60 percent of Muslim Arab men but only 20 percent of Muslim Arab women are employed. Among the haredi ultra-Orthodox community, nearly 50 percent of women but only 25 percent of men have jobs. The remaining haredi men are engaged in full-time religious study.
Because Muslim Arab and haredi families are frequently jobless or are single-income families in low-paid employment, poverty rates are around 50 percent and 60 percent for the two communities, respectively. It is a tragedy that festers with no clear solution in sight.
But if Jerusalem had ten times the number of hotel rooms, with a significantly expanded tourism base and the supportive infrastructure, the extensive labor it would require would eat deeply into the unemployment rate and the poverty rate would plummet.
To be sure, tourism isn’t a panacea for all of Jerusalem’s labor ills. But it’s a significant start. The ultra-Orthodox leadership that support rebuilding Jerusalem would likely join in encouraging their followers to participate in the work force, thereby lending their families greater financial security and dignity. Likewise, the Arab population could use a strong boost from its imams, encouraging them to avail themselves of the new employment opportunities and give their children better lives. However, getting the business community to recognize the potential to make significant money in Jerusalem while simultaneously providing tens of thousands of new jobs for those mired in poverty is just the beginning.
By 2050, the number of residents in Jerusalem is forecasted at about 1.7 million. To meet this growth, about 4,300 new apartments will have to be built annually for many years to come. These residents will need work if the poverty rate is not to climb to further, unacceptable levels.
Increased tourism would also bring people of the world to witness firsthand Jerusalem’s spiritual uniqueness and its special place in history. With the correct focus, promotion and investment, Israel’s capital can vastly expand to take advantage of global tourism growth and inherent demand. And, unlike Vegas, what happens in Jerusalem never stays in Jerusalem, but affects every aspect of a tourist’s future life.