Despite conflict, BDS, Israel’s tourism and economy are thriving: former diplomat

People arrive at Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv. (George Dement/CC BY-SA 2.0)

VANCOUVER – For those who are worried about the impact of the Palestinian conflict and the BDS campaign on Israel, Ido Aharoni offers an unusual piece of advice: check the tourist arrival numbers.

In 2014, when Israel was plunged into 55 days of military conflict – the longest in its history – stoking fears of a wider war beyond Gaza, it attracted more than 2.92-million international tourists. That was the second highest in the country’s 70-year history.

“Contrary to what most people thought, 2014 was not a disastrous year for Israel’s tourism industry,” said Aharoni, a former diplomat in Israel’s foreign service who made his mark as an expert on political branding before retiring in 2016.

Remarkably, Israel’s tourism industry did not collapse, even as the Middle East imploded with the emergence of the Islamic State and intensified fighting in Libya and Syria. The number of international tourists to Israel held steady at between 2.8- and 2.9-million over the next two years, according to the Ministry of Tourism. Then, in 2017, arrivals surged nearly 25 per cent, to an all-time high of over 3.6-million visitors.


This year will be another record-breaking year, Aharoni predicted in an interview with The CJN, before speaking at the Vancouver Israeli Tech (VIT) forum. His presentation on Israel’s creative spirit was jointly organized by the VIT and the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University.

To Aharoni, the country’s tourism boom carries more significance than the continuing and predictable drumbeat of war news and anti-Israel headlines.

First, it points to Israel’s rising international appeal, which has effectively overshadowed the BDS campaign.

Second, Israel’s brand is making inroads into new markets and regions beyond the United States and Europe. Asia, in particular, is looking at Israel with fresh eyes in its search for help with the region’s vast array of environmental, health, safety and security problems. The number of Asian visitors to Israel increased 43 per cent last year to 436,000.

Contrary to what most people thought, 2014 was not a disastrous year for Israel’s tourism industry.
– Ido Aharoni

Third, the ageing pundits who have long dominated the narrative on Israel are giving way to new voices who are exploring fresh topics and experiences related to the Jewish state, rather than solely focusing on geopolitics and the Palestinian conflict.

“People are visiting Israel to see its many great attractions and the creativity that’s manifested in our way of life. Combine that with a very young spirit, Israel has become relevant to people that love history, religiosity and spirituality,” said Aharoni.

The new generation of tourists accepts that security and safety risks are part of today’s existence. Ironically, Aharoni said that the biggest threat to Israel’s newfound image as a destination for ideas and creative pursuits comes from within the country’s own establishment.

Aharoni, who now serves as a global distinguished professor at New York University’s School of International Relations, criticized the country’s “old-world” leaders, starting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for what he sees is their constant urge to draw attention to Israel’s problems.

“Show me an organization that excels by constantly highlighting its problems, deficiencies and weaknesses. It doesn’t exist. And Israel should not try to be the first,” he told the VIT audience.

From left, Rami Kleinman, Dina Wachtel, Monette Malewski, Ronen Tanne, Ohad Arazi and Eran Elizur join Ido Aharoni, back centre, at the Vancouver Israeli Tech forum in Vancouver. (Alan Katowitz photo)

While the Middle East’s geopolitical problems are ancient and possibly intractable, he said that Israel’s opinion makers must work to shift the conversation to one that celebrates their country’s creativity and growth.

Another recent trend that Aharoni wants to highlight is the strength of the economy, which is fuelled in part by foreign direct investment (FDI). According to the UN Conference on Trade and Development, Israel attracted a record of nearly US$19 billion ($25 billion) worth of FDI last year, up from just over US$6 billion in 2014. This, like the tourism industry, reflects the world’s growing confidence in Israel.

“The task at hand is not to win debates, but rather to build relationships with people that matter,” he said.

“When you look at any problem today – whether it’s water, solar energy, food or cyber security – Israel is a big part of the solution.”

People are visiting Israel to see its many great attractions and the creativity that’s manifested in our way of life.
– Ido Aharoni

Aharoni will get the chance to sell Israel as a creative force when he makes his first working visit to China next year. While he has worked with Asian colleagues and clients in the U.S., Japan and South Korea in the past, China will be a far bigger and more difficult challenge.

With bilateral relations between China and the U.S. at their lowest point in over 40 years, Israel will once again be dealing with geopolitical tensions, but on a much bigger and more complex scale. Instead of enemies in the Middle East, Israel will have to tread carefully between courting China and staying loyal to the U.S., which remains its most important ally. In this, Aharoni will find his new brand of Israel’s creative spirit put to its sternest test yet.