Having recently returned from a month’s sojourn overseas I arrived back in the place I love to call home, with mixed feelings. I had stayed in the lush English countryside which included Hertfordshire, Kent, Sussex and Cornwall. I was in and out of the bosom of my family and close friends who are fortunate to live in such beautiful surroundings. I also hopped over to France to visit cousins who live in a kind of ex-pat paradise in a fifteenth century village in the Aude region of France.
As my El Al flight was descending to land in Tel Aviv, the usual rush of emotion caused the tears of gratitude to well up in my eyes. The clapping for the pilot was the cherry on the cake.
Nothing in my visit could have been more different or contrasting to Israel and my way of life here. Everywhere I met interest, indifference, politeness and an acceptance of how life affects only the local people, in all the places in which I stayed. Little interest in affairs in the outside world, local bigotry and veiled resentment of immigrants and asylum seekers was evident, but not an issue. Israel was to them fascinating depending on whether they were Jewish of which only a few were. Some were opinionated, media influenced and of course talking with them was a challenge.
Everywhere I visited as a tourist was organised, spotlessly clean and reasonably priced. El Al as an airline was excellent, Ryan Air less so and not as cheap as they would like you to believe, but that was the option to Carcassone, close to where my cousins live in Alets les Bain.
On my return, I felt a rush at the sight of so many people at Ben Gurion Airport all excited to greet relatives, balloons and welcoming signs – hardly any for tourist groups. Mostly private individuals and hyper young people. I had missed the spontaneity.
The next day I went to my local supermarket I almost wept at the prices which hit me between the eyes. All the basic foods I had seen in Tesco,Lidl,Waitrose Sainsbury had been half the price to what they are here.To brighten my mood I purchased fruit lots of it, peaches, grapes, melon and papaya. It was far more delicious than any I had eaten in Europe.
I am home in the most wonderful place in the world.
With all the disturbing events which attack our emotions daily, which do not give us a moment of real peace like that which I had experienced overseas, this land is special. For someone who came here aged 18 when life was simple, and compared to even the England I left after WW2, somewhat primitive, I can never imagine living anywhere else. Working for years in PR, tourism and creating programmes for visitors from overseas I know how impressed most people are after visiting, and how ignorant most are of the reality of Israel when they first arrive.
Does anyone remember that tourism was our number two export after agriculture?
Does anyone realise that the official figures of 3 million or so tourists per year is a drop in the ocean. Israel, where even the language is 3000 years old, is the one place in the world that is unique not only physically, but from every aspect. The ethnic mix, the wonders of nature the access to a range of contrasts not found anywhere else. When people say the best guide book is the Bible they are correct.Today the restaurants here are on a par with any place you can mention and by the same rule so is the range of entertainment.
So why are we shocked that people don’t want to visit? We have allowed tourism to become a bleeding wound.
The present Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin has yet to prove himself, but remember he is there by default. No one queues up to take on what should be the most exciting Ministry of all. Just think about it. Can you even remember the names of previous Tourism Ministers? Marketing the land of the Zionist dream to the world, the opportunity to show everything that is so special and individual here must be a satisfying career?
The deep seated reasons for the failure here are now being shown on our TV screens and they are truly valid. Local authorities have been most unhelpful in issuing licenses to hotel developers making demands and placing hurdles in their way even when there was interest. Think of Eilat, how the late David Lewis had to eat straw as we say, before he could get his impressive company off the ground. Think of Natanya, which till this day does not have an hotel of international standard. Look at Tiberias, what a waste, the place is a jewel which has been allowed to almost lay fallow, catering mostly to Christian low budget tourists and run by a succession of Mayors who had no interest in developing tourism, lest it affect the sensitivity and power of the religious community.
So with the “conflict” to one side we still have so much to offer. This could and would benefit every sector of our society.
Israelis, who like an unnamed Minister who says we should boycott those who seek to BDS us, are talking nonsense. Many of those who voted for the present administration will continue to happily spend their money in a variety of countries who have openly expressed their contempt for us,this is a fact. Call it thick skinned or self serving.
Its not too late. The hotel industry has to take a hard look at itself and try to at least give us and the tourists better deal for our money.We also need to clean up our act. However the bottom line is that our democratically elected leadership has to “get the finger out” on tourism and what it means to us economically and emotionally. We must face it no one has cared in the last 10 or 15 years.
I have wonderful memories of my professional experience in the 80s when it was a pleasure to project the positive image of Israel. People always found us to be open, hospitable and friendly. The shallow advertising campaigns of bikini clad models gracing the billboards and buses in London and New York did not succeed in the long run. Travellers can get the sun on many sheer white beaches around the world. They can’t get all the other precious things we have, and should want to offer.
Having laid the blame I cannot end without a word about the Foreign Ministry, which is also culpable for the demise, and not wanting to seem naive or oblivious to the political situation, must admit that we are in for a rocky ride if something drastic doesn’t change soon.
Perhaps Yariv Levin will surprise us all!