Do Israel’s Tourism Ads Actually Work?
I was zipping around Israel’s Negev desert for a week last spring with a group of journalists collecting research on solar arrays, fish farms, and water-saving projects at Ben Gurion University. As we drove though the desert, I saw the spectacular Ramon crater, grand canyons and ramshackle camps where the Bedouin have set up shop along the highway. Above the villages was a Roman ruin perched nearby on a high plateau. The limestone acropolis of Avdat was a Nabataean outpost annexed by the Romans that served as a road station along the spice trade route. Standing on the ancient desert site, I actually felt the reach of the Roman Empire, but I was ready for an exploration of a more verdant Israel.
I had only once been to the country at age 12, the summer before my Bat Mitzvah. My parents, my older brother, and I first stayed on a Kibbutz along the Sea of Galilee. The deep-green sea at the footsteps of the Kibbutz hotel seemed murky, mysterious, but I mostly remember the unappetizing buffet breakfast of stinky fish and hard-boiled eggs. In the Old City of Jerusalem, we wandered through the pungent spice markets of the Muslim Quarter, where bartering sessions were dramatic theater. Watching the sparring between the tourists and shopkeepers, I wondered who could possibly care so much about the price of saffron. Just a few hundred steps from the spice market stood the Western Wall. Like many of my ancestors, I placed a piece of rolled up paper, containing a prayer, in between its ancient stones.
Since then, Israel has not been much of a magnet for me, even though I consider myself more than just culturally Jewish, occasionally attending Shabbat services and even taking a class in Kabbalah. But, perhaps because discussions about Israeli politics always seemed the default topic of The Jewish Conversation, I had come to see the country primarily as a religious place with occasional eruptions of heartbreaking violence.
That’s the perception that the Israeli government has been trying to change. In 2006, the Israel Ministry of Tourism launched a $12 million advertising campaign to entice so-called “sophisticated” U.S. travelers to view Israel as a cultural oasis in the Middle East — a substitute for Italy or France, where rockets don’t descend on tourists and suicide bombers don’t obliterate marketplaces. The so-called “sophisticated traveler” ads on television, in newspapers, and online promise visitors: “You’ll love Israel from the first Shalom.” The campaign’s signature spot features a famous Israeli dancer from the internationally acclaimed Batsheva Dance Company doing a high kick in the Mediterranean surf. A flurry of press releases announce Israel’s impressive classical and contemporary jazz festivals, La Scala Opera House’s upcoming outdoor opera series, and an international harp contest. Israel even extended their campaign stateside. There will be a New York City celebration of the 100th anniversary of Tel Aviv, the garden city north of biblical Jaffa founded on sand dunes in 1909. In Tel Aviv, the tourism folks proudly tell us, Madonna will perform as a part of her “Sticky & Sweet” tour.
It would be an understatement to say that this aggressive marketing push, which consists of daily press emails, newspaper ads, and primetime commercials airing in New York, Los Angeles and Florida, seems curious, especially given its timing. So I sought out Arie Sommer, the Israel Tourism Commissioner for North & South America. The tourism executive, based in New York, told me that the “sophisticated traveler” campaign has, in fact, been an effective lure. More than 650,000 U.S. tourists visited Israel in 2008, a 25% hike up from 2006. That’s $1 billion extra in Israel’s pocket. A campaign worthy of “Mad Men.”
Ironically, in the “Babylon” episode from the first season of the aforementioned AMC series, set in a boutique 1960 ad agency that (at least originally) caters to the non-Jewish world, Madison Avenue execs struggle to craft an image for the newly formed state of Israel, looking for evidence in a copy of Exodus and the Old Testament. They’re sought out by the country’s tourism ministry who, when asked what types of tourists they crave, respond plainly to Don Draper, the wealthy All-American played by Jon Hamm, “People like you.” In other words, WASPy travelers who jet away on planes for exotic, luxurious holidays. Why can’t Israel’s coast become the next French Riviera?
To be fair, fishing for tourism revenue with glitzy PR campaigns is not uncommon among countries plagued by war. Around the globe, other nations with violent images have understandably sought to advertise their assets. They tempt travelers with scenes of natural wonder, exotic festivals, and even practical attractions like medical tourism. In 2005, for example, Nicaragua launched a campaign to help American tourists forget about the country’s tumultuous and violent history. The new slogan, ”A Country With Heart,” was designed to “offer distance from the camouflaged Marxists and U.S.-backed rebels that Americans saw on their television screens throughout the 1980s,” according to the Miami Herald. Many African countries, such as Angola, have launched small campaigns in recent years to entice visitors to see countries as something other than dangerous spots suffering from coups and poverty. Even Sri Lanka, which may be in the last throes of war against the Tamil Tiger rebels, recently announced plans to build luxury resorts to steer international tourists their way.
But Israel’s tourism campaigns are just more present. They’re more than persuasive attempts at increasing vacationers — they’re an unusually aggressive and culturally bold attempt at smoothing over mindsets. Tourism officials think that they can effectively compete in the charm department despite the fact that the majority of U.S. news stories about Israel focus on Israeli-Palestinian relations and world leaders’ attempts to bring peace to a perennially unstable Middle East region. But can flashy public relations campaigns counteract a tainted image of a country known for perpetually facing attacks and fighting back with a vengeance that many consider excessive?
“You can understand that our image in the United States is a little bit complicated,” Sommer told me over the phone from his New York office. “Americans don’t know enough about Israel as a tourist destination. They hear about the Middle East, the wars, the terror attacks, but they are not aware of what Israel has to offer.” At present, the Minister of Tourism is petitioning the new government for a virtual doubling of the worldwide promotional budget, with an aim to spend close to $100 million by 2010. They may not have Don Draper on their side, but they do employ Geoffrey Weill Associates, Inc., a top New York public relations firm that represents many of the world’s most luxurious resorts. And, of course, some of that tourism money and muscle is meant to support the continuation of a successful campaign to entice what Sommer dubs Israel’s “bread and butter” tourist — the Christian traveler. That campaign’s slogan is “When you visit Israel, you will never be the same,” and it details how a visit to Israel can bring the Bible to life. It targets evangelicals and Catholics with music videos and “pilgrimage kits” for pastors. There are even instructions for travelers on how to choose a good tour guide once they arrive.
I wasn’t immune to their wiles, either. When I left the business portion of my trip and arrived in Jerusalem for a 10-day vacation, Israel’s corny promotional ads aimed at the “sophisticated traveler” roped me in, despite a reporter’s skepticism. From the cascading waterfalls in the north to the Mediterranean beaches of Tel Aviv, I loved Israel from the Second Shalom. The chicly dressed, coffee-wielding hipsters in crowded Tel Aviv cafes reminded me of Parisian life. Like a foodie, I wandered through Jerusalem’s bustling Mechane Yehuda market, spending my precious shekels to buy grapefruits, hallavah, fresh bread, and rosebud tea. I even took a tour and sloshed through the underground spring below the ancient City of David. Meant for transporting water, not humans, the narrow passage would have been a claustrophobic tourist’s worst nightmare. But that engineering accomplishment helped maintain a water supply for the city so the first King of Israel could withstand attackers over the centuries, and it romanced the science geek in me.
Still, as I walked, bused, and drove around the small country, what I found to be truly arresting was the pairing of scenic wonder with the ever-present reminders of Arab-Israeli battles. Bombs weren’t flying overhead, of course. But the theme of impending attack was in nearly every conversation: a casual reminder of the recent Gaza fighting. Both the government-sanctioned tour guides as well as the independent guides in nearly every city and town I visited didn’t pull a slick Madison Avenue veneer over the fact that the conflict had just recently left deep wounds on both sides. Guides at Roman ruins and resorts and holy sites whipped through the ancient battles, the Holocaust, and then presented this year’s Gaza war as part of an inevitable continuum. Whatever their political perspective or party affiliation, the people I met working in local shops and hotels also had a sober perspective on their country’s predicament. Israelis seemed as casual about political violence as Californians are about earthquakes: The potential for danger is there but you take precautions and get on with it.
One afternoon, as I was admiring the Bauhaus architecture of Jaffa, our guide pointed out the Tel Aviv nightclub on the beach where, in 2001, a suicide bomber killed 17 people. Later that week, while driving from Tzfat to the northern tip of the Galilee without a particular route in mind, I ended up a few hundred meters from the Lebanese border. I stopped at a lookout that provided a stunning view of the town of Metulla, surrounded by lush orchards and the snow-capped mountains of Mount Hermon. When I pressed the information button on the lookout perch, the recording said something like, “the alpine town of Metulla, which is on the Lebanese border had to be shut down when the Hezbollah…” A Jerusalem Post article reported that children were sent away during the summer of 2006, and businesses were shuttered due to threat of missile launches from Lebanon into Israel. To be sure, Israel has been in prep mode for an imminent attack for its entire 60-year history. Everywhere you go in the country, there are groups of teenage soldiers. On a bus ride from Jerusalem to Tiberias, I met a lovely 18-year-old girl, who was almost as animated about her army intelligence training as she was about her soldier boyfriend who would be waiting for her at her destination. Military readiness has always been part of the Israeli psyche.
But the willingness on the part of guides and locals to speak so boldly about violent attacks struck me as eminently foreign. It’s certainly not an angle the American tourist board would publicize. The battles chronicled in U.S. tourism brochures are Civil or Revolutionary — centuries old. The manicured battlefields of Antietam and Gettysburg and key sites of Revolutionary War victories display unquestionable gravitas. But they are confined to history, like beautiful paintings to be analyzed and revered. Now, nearly eight years after the 9/11 attacks, Americans are perhaps becoming more Israeli; we don’t always take for granted the promise of peace and stability at home. Tourists still flock to Ground Zero and the site of memorial, which is still under construction. There is even a mini-industry of keepsakes on sale to commemorate the attacks.
Certainly, U.S. candidness about terrorism has a political purpose: keeping people psychologically primed for the prospect of attack, something that before 9/11 had not happened on our shores for some time. But serious propaganda also plays a role in Israel’s candor about fresh conflicts. The incidents are the accounts of Israelis and not their Arab adversaries. (The fact that hundreds of Palestinians were killed during the Gaza War wasn’t in the script of any of the official walking tours I took.) I understand the eagerness in Israel not to gloss over the strife its citizens have had to weather, and I imagine that the details about Israeli casualties would be equally absent from the tourist materials of Arab countries as well. But the spin is still there.
I wanted to make better sense of this as my journey neared its conclusion. The day before boarding the grueling, 16-hour flight back to Los Angeles, I indulged in a massage in Tel Aviv. I spoke candidly with Liriet, the spa owner, who described herself as politically progressive. She explained to me that the accounts of violent incidents are simply the way that Israelis can explain to outsiders why the country’s military actions are warranted. “In order to justify all Israeli aggression, we have to show how we suffer,” she said. “But we do suffer. I am not saying we are hypocrites or making stuff up.” She added that Israelis of all political persuasions are living in a country surrounded by hostile adversaries whose stated purpose is to erase them from the earth. Whether they advocate making Jerusalem an international city and forging a two-state solution or seek to expand settlements in the West Bank, the majority goal is to keep the country intact.
Sommer, the tourism commissioner, was sanguine about his country’s future, however. “Israelis are always exposed to danger. There has never been a down moment in last 3,000 years,” he said, “Since King David defended the first city in Judea thousands of years ago…” But he also reminded me that “if it wasn’t safe, we would say don’t come.”
The truth is that true danger is less common than people think. The violent crime rate in the U.S. is 100 times higher than that of Israel, according to the Israeli government’s crime data from 2008. Even Great Britain had 30 times more violent crime incidents per resident than Israel did last year. And some travelers will never need a statistical chart or a campaign pitch to convince them to go.
Last spring, before I left for Israel, I met one Kathie Kopa, an experienced (and sophisticated) world traveler who globetrots frequently when on leave from casting a popular ABC reality show. Kathie, who is now gallivanting around Thailand, told me that she thinks American tourists just have to adopt some of the Israeli whatever-may-be-may-be attitude if they want to dip their toes in the Jordan River or visit Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity. She went to Israel in 2007, six months after the bombings in Haifa, and she didn’t even think to cancel her tickets. “You can’t predict when the next bomb is going to fall,” she said. “They just live with it. As a tourist, I did too.”
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