‘I would like the tourist to go back home enriched – not thinking about how much he spent, but about how much he enjoyed and learned.’Raed Saadeh has been operating the Jerusalem Hotel – a small, quaint boutique hotel a couple blocks from the Old City’s Damascus Gate in the east section of Jerusalem’s capital – for years. Through good times and bad, he’s managed to fill the hotel’s 14 rooms with tourists ranging from Christian pilgrims, Arab visitors from the West Bank and international visitors from the US, Europe and Asia.
But with the almost complete halt in tourism over the last four years, Saadeh has seen business suffer, which means uncertainty and anxiety for him and the 32 employees who rely on the tourist trade for their livelihood.
He’s hoping that an Israeli initiative called StartUp Jerusalem will help turn the tide and bring tourists back in big numbers to Jerusalem.
“You have to understand the tourism industry is one with many intersections between the Palestinian Jerusalem and the Israeli Jerusalem,” Saadeh told ISRAEL21c during a one-day conference held last week that brought together over 250 tour operators and cultural institutions in the city to discuss ways to get tourism back on its feet.
“Startup Jerusalem is an organization that is trying to create a win-win situation for all the residents of the city – Arabs, Jews and Christians,” he added.
Founded last year as a non-profit organization to create jobs in Israel’s capital by increasing its attractiveness to businesses, StartUp Jerusalem is hoping to ease the plight of all of the city’s 680,000 residents (including 200,000 Christian and Muslim Arabs) who have been hit hard by four years of violence.
By identifying and focusing on Jerusalem’s strengths – it’s the cradle of three religions and attracts people worldwide; it has very strong universities, hospitals, biotech and science infrastructure; and it boasts a wide variety of people who speak many different languages fluently and with strong cultural affinities to their countries of origin – the organization is proceeding according to techniques developed by Harvard Business school professor Michael Porter, who is honorary chairman.
Porter’s philosophy involves identifying the features that make Jerusalem economically competitive and focusing on ‘clusters’ – geographic concentrations of companies and institutions in particular fields – that will exploit those attributes.
StartUp Jerusalem has selected three clusters that it will concentrate on: Health and Life Sciences; Outsourcing and Business Services; and Culture and Tourism.
Last week’s tourism conference was the opening salvo in the Tourism cluster’s attempt to form a cohesive front among both the supply and demand sides of Jerusalem tourism, said the organization’s founder, the cluster’s chairman, and Jerusalem City Council member Nir Barkat.
“We would like to see tourists coming to Jerusalem and get a better bang for their buck, more culture and a more ‘wow’ experience. This will increase their stay here and boost the economy,” Barkat told ISRAEL21c.
“It’s very clear to us that there’s a need for this from both the supply and the demand side. Getting tour operators and the players on the cultural side to work together is the key. We’re trying to develop the whole concept of working together and a network of cooperation within the cluster.”
Observing the mingling taking place in the halls of the Jerusalem International Convention Center, the aims of the conference were being achieved. Religious Jews with kippot sat for pow wows with Arab businessmen and Christian tour operators, people exchanged business cards, discussed cooperation, and even focused on the mundane. Two Old City merchants traded notes over the inadequate garbage pickup near their stores which could have a negative impact on tourism, and agreed on a unified front to approach the Jerusalem Municipality’s sanitation department.
StartUp Jerusalem chairman Alan Feld was delighted at the interaction going on. “We have about 250 people here, we’re very pleased with the turnout. We’re happy that there’s a good representation of Christian and Arab participants from East Jerusalem,” he said.
Inside the main hall, sessions were ongoing, ranging from one titled Incoming Tourism Characteristics to another called Developing Cultural Anchors. At the former session Mark Khano – the general manager of Guiding Star Ltd., a tour operator for the Christian market – told the participants that they have a great product, but it hasn’t been exploited properly.
“Jerusalem’s Old City is a center of ethnic, religious and cultural diversity. We have the product, but it’s not enough. We need access and facility to it. We have to develop the product and the demand for the product will come. Jerusalem, with its rich culture has plenty to offer the rest of the world; we need the proper packaging to make it attractive,” he said.
“I would like the tourist to go back home enriched – not thinking about how much he spent, but about how much he enjoyed and learned.”
Following a coffee break, the participants split up into nine roundtable discussions, with the goal being to work up sample packages for tourism. Among the topics were Ethnicity and Folklore, Jerusalem for Families, Historic Jerusalem and Jerusalem in Literature and Art.
At the working group entitled ‘The City of Three Religions’, the 20 participants included a comedian whose routine focuses on coexistence in the city, representatives from the Islamic Museum and David’s Tower Museum, tour operators, an artist who has created a traveling coffee shop which touts coexistence, and a priest.
Despite their vast cultural differences, the group managed to exchange ideas through brainstorming and listening to each other – one idea raised was to establish a ‘Biblical Trail’ similar to Boston’s Freedom Trail, which in the words of one of the speakers could “really unite the different religions.”
According to the manager of the Tourism cluster and organizer of the conference – Ilanit Melchior, another potential idea that came out of the roundtables was to establish a 19th century cultural market bringing together wines, perfumes, spices just like the trading route of 19th century Jerusalem.
“Another aspect discussed was ethnicity and folklore – how do you combine east and west Jerusalem together around their ethnicity that works for both. When a tourist comes to Jerusalem, they want to get that feeling of diversity, and see how other people live and work,” said Melchior.
Melchior deemed the conference a great success and said that wheels have already started turning to build on its momentum.
“We’ve found that there’s a tremendous need for a network which will create opportunity. In the short run, we’ve started work on a website which will provide information that will allow cultural institutions and tour operators to coordinate and know what each is doing. For example, if a tour operator is bringing over a group of 500 Hadassah women, the cultural institutions will be aware of this and be able to offer certain packages.”
According to StartUp founder Barkat, the conference and the results it hopes to parlay will mean a new type of business concept about Jerusalem that will benefit both tourist and resident alike.
“It’s a clear win-win business oriented approach, that crosses borders and sectors,” he said.
Melchior added, “We don’t see Arab, Christian and Jewish tourism as separate entities – there’s enough separation already in other spheres. This is a very economic concept – how do we take the tourism industry, leverage it, and allow anyone to become a part of it who can contribute. This will address the problem of unemployment in Jerusalem.”
For Raed Saadeh, he would like nothing better than to see American Jewish tourists and Israelis from throughout the country feel safe enough to come to stay at his hotel – housed in a 130-year-old building.
“We’ve created a distinguished place that represents a certain character of Jerusalem. We’ve tried to bring some of the characteristics of the different cultures that existed in Jerusalem through the ages,” he said. But he admits that a beautiful setting is not enough; tourists must feel safe.
“We shouldn’t forget that there hasn’t been a single tourist harmed while visiting Jerusalem during the last four years. That’s important – compared to other countries where tourists have been targeted. With all the conflict that is here, tourists are not targeted – on the contrary, here both the Arab and Jewish communities see the benefit of tourism.”
And both sides are seeing the benefit of working with StartUp Jerusalem toward a common goal that will propel Jerusalem tourism into the 21st century by keeping an eye on its glorious past.