Despite Mideast Turmoil, Israeli Tourism Is Up


Uzi Landau, a Knesset veteran of almost three decades and currently minister of tourism, was in New York last week to drum up travel business for Israel, particularly in the Christian communities, including Hispanic ones, here.

He noted with pride, during an interview at the Israeli Consulate, that 2012 was a record year for Israeli tourism, with about 3.5 million visitors, and the past few months have shown an increase.

But he was most animated in talking about his opposition to the contours of the renewed peace talks and the recent decision by the European Union to disassociate itself from Jewish communities beyond the Green Line.

“It drives me mad,” he said, noting that the EU point of view would allow a future Palestinian state to ban Jews from living within its borders.

“I thought the Judenrein approach ended after the Nazi defeat, but the EU decision is taking us once again to that atmosphere,” Landau said.

Calling the EU move “appalling” in branding Jewish communities in the West Bank and east Jerusalem outside of the state, he said that would mean the Western Wall, built by King Solomon, would not be part of Israel.

A highly educated man with a doctorate in engineering from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, at 69 he has long been one of the more thoughtful leaders on the political right, for many years with Likud and since 2009 with Avigdor Lieberman’s Yisrael Beiteinu party. He quickly ticked off a number of reasons why this is not the time to create a Palestinian state, while emphasizing that “every Zionist wants peace,” one that calls for compromise on both sides.

Israelis need to proceed “with open eyes,” he said, noting that Arab states are replacing pan-Arabism with “extreme Muslim” leaders with no historical experience. “No engineer would build on ground that was still shaking from an earthquake,” he said, referring to the chaotic conditions in Egypt, Syria and elsewhere in the region, in addition to the fact that Hamas is fully opposed to the peace talks.

With the region in turmoil, how is it that tourism to Israel is booming?

Landau noted “an encouraging phenomenon” in that people are choosing to come and see for themselves the reality of Israel. “And they leave with an overwhelming sense of optimism and enthusiasm.”

Only 25 percent of tourists to Israel are Jewish, though, and Landau said his biggest challenge is to “redefine our marketing strategy to help us expose Israel as it is,” beneath the headlines. The appeal, he said, is to acknowledge that a visit to Israel “is not like a ‘regular’ vacation. It’s for people looking for passion, commitment and enthusiasm, whether it’s the mystical experience of Safed or the lonely farms in the Negev.”

Spoken like a marketing pro, though Landau adds with a smile that, in office only since February, “I’m new to this, like a student in his first semester. But I was educated to do my homework and make decisions.”