Jerusalem tourism waxes and wanes with international politics

By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–More than two million overseas visitors arrived in Jerusalem during a recent year. The attractions are well maintained places linked to individuals and events featured in the Hebrew Bible and New Testament, and a functioning Old City enclosed by walls built in ancient times and last reconstructed in the 16th century. The Old City offers sites and shopping for tourists, and four distinctive neighborhoods that are the homes of 30,000 Jews, Muslims, Armenians and other Christians. Only a short ride away is Bethlehem, equally compelling for those wanting to see the roots of Christianity. Jericho is not much further in another direction. It offers winter visitors a chance to dine comfortably in an outdoor restaurant, while ten miles away in Jerusalem it may be raining and close to freezing.
While the numbers coming to Jerusalem are impressive, and often a nuisance to locals having to cope with crowds and traffic, the city ranks lower than 50 others in the numbers of tourists it attracts. London, New York, Bangkok, Paris, and Rome attract from three to seven times the number of international tourists as Jerusalem. Dublin, Amsterdam, and Prague get twice as many, while even Kiev and Bucharest, plus resorts near Bangkok attract 50 percent more international visitors than Jerusalem.

Jerusalem may have more of a mystic pull than these other places. The “Jerusalem syndrome” is a documented condition whereby some visitors believe themselves to be biblical characters. Jewish and Christian sufferers act as David, Jesus, or some other figure associated with their faith. I am not aware of visitors to London and Paris thinking that they are Henry VIII, Napoleon, or any of the other figures associated with local history.
Why does Jerusalem rank only #51 on a sophisticated ranking of international tourism? 
Distance has something to do with it. Visitors to Western Europe can avail themselves of numerous attractive destinations as part of the same trip from home. There are decent beaches and other features in Tel Aviv and Netanya, but they attract only 60 and 10 percent of the overseas visitors as Jerusalem. Tiberias is on the Sea of Galilee and close to sites important to Christians, but draws only 25 percent of the number of visitors to Jerusalem. 
 
There are other sites in countries close to Jerusalem, notably Egypt, Jordan, Syria, and Lebanon, but the borders of the Middle East are not as easy to cross as those of Western Europe. For some years now Israeli security personnel have not allowed Israeli Jews to visit Bethlehem or Jericho without special permits, and others have to pass through barriers and inspections meant to protect us.

Politics and tension are more likely to figure in a decision to visit Jerusalem than other cities. The number of overseas tourists to Israel dropped from 2.4 million in 2000, which was mostly prior to the onset of the latest intifada, to a bit over one million in 2003, which was one of the bloodiest years. Numbers increased to 1.9 million by 2005 when the violence had diminished significantly. No other country included in the regions of Europe and the Mediterranean surveyed by the United Nations tourist agency showed comparable variations in the same period. Even on a mundane issue like this, the U.N. is unable to consider Israel part of the Middle East region, which includes all of the countries bordering it and Palestine.

Jerusalem has drawn more tourists that some well-known sites in Europe. It does better than Florence and Venice, and is pretty much tied with Athens. Why less than Kiev and Bucharest? There are mysteries in the world of tourism that may boil down to nothing more than current fashion or a lack of precision in the numbers.

Tourist flows change with politics and economics. Thirty years ago there was virtually no direct travel between Israel, the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Now Russian visitors are in second place behind those from the United States; there are sizable numbers from Ukraine and Poland. Thousands come each year from India, Korea, Japan, China, and Nigeria. Indonesia and Morocco receive Israelis and send visitors to Israel, even though there are no formal diplomatic relations. There are even a few hundred visitors annually from Malaysia and Iran, whose officials are usually among our most intense critics .

My latest Jerusalem experience may be part of a multicultural gesture to attract overseas visitors, or it may reflect nothing more than the lack of experience or attention by the person responsible. While I usually pay no attention to the music piped into the exercise room at the university gym, this morning I became alert to something familiar. It was Silent Night, in the English version I was required to sing many years ago at the Highland School. But only in December. Never in July.

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Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University

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