Israel launches PR campaign to increase tourism, disguise policies of oppression, Occupation 21Mar11 March 22, 2011

The Alternative Information Centre -  21 March 2011

Israel recently launched an international campaign to increase its number of tourists. While 2010 was a record year for visitors, Israeli ministries promote “public relations” campaigns to disguise the country’s policies of oppression and occupation.

Israel’s Ministry of Tourism launched a NIS 45 million tourism campaign last week, aiming to bring tourists from North America and Europe to Israel.

The ministry’s biggest campaigns are underway in the US, Germany and Russia, reported the Jerusalem Post, where Israel tourism television commercials are airing, and smaller campaigns have also begun in Spain, France, the Netherlands and Scandinavian countries.

Ukrainian Prime Minister Mykola Azarov, who visited Jerusalem last week, told Israeli President Shimon Peres that since Israel and Ukraine signed a bilateral agreement last year for the cancellation of entry visas, there has been a 20- per cent rise in tourism between the two countries.

Israel received 3.45 million tourists in 2010, a record number and 14 percent higher than the previous record of about 3 million tourists in 2008. Most tourists visit from the United States, Russia, Germany, France, and the United Kingdom. According to Pini Shani, the Tourism Ministry’s deputy director of marketing administration, the Ministry’s goal is 5 million tourists annually by 2015.

“The biggest concern is the lack of understanding of the Middle East. Many people in Germany and other places don’t know the difference in terms of size and distance between Israel and other countries, and when they hear ‘Middle East’ they think of everything under one umbrella,” Shani said.

However, based on new campaigns being launched by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Israel’s tourism concerns aren’t only geographic.

The Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs has doubled the embassies’ 2011 budget for public relations. Additionally, embassies were ordered to prepare a list of “one thousand allies who will be regularly briefed by the embassies. These allies should initiate assemblies and demonstrations, and publish articles in newspapers,” Barak Ravid of the Israeli news daily Haaretz reported in December 2010.

As Israel continues to withdraw from peace negotiations and increases settlement construction, Europeans have become increasing wary and critical.

“Israel is losing the battle for European public opinion,” notes Pascal Boniface, Director of the French Institute de Relations Internationales et Strategiques (IRIS), “and the planned public relations attack by the Foreign Ministry demonstrates that the Israeli government knows its message is not as convincing as in the past.”

Pascal Boniface ends by saying “the fact is that the state of Israel is losing the battle for European public opinion. In order to rehabilitate its image, a change in policy is necessary, not a change in public relations.”

However, policies inside Israel aren’t changing. In October 2010, a bill to ban Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem from serving as tour guides in the city was proposed by seven Israeli Knesset members.

“These residents often present anti-Israeli positions to groups of tourists that they guide,” the bill states. “To ensure foreign tourists are exposed to the national Israeli viewpoint, we suggest ruling that travel agencies, and any organization providing tours for foreign tourists, ensure that the groups are accompanied by a tour guide who is an Israeli citizen and has institutional loyalty to the State of Israel.”

Since the establishment of the state of Israel, tourism has been directed to a one sided ideological tourism to secure and serve the Israeli propaganda and the Israeli claim on Palestine.

The Palestinian Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions National Committee is calling for a tourism boycott: “Supporting Israeli tourism comes at the cost of further destruction to Palestinian communities, heritage and culture. Tourism is used by the occupation to promote a ‘progressive’, ‘peaceful’ and ‘multicultural’ face to the world despite the daily crimes committed against the Palestinian people. In the campaign against tourism to Apartheid South Africa, activists sought out tourist exhibitions or agents promoting travel to the regime under the slogan ‘Apartheid is NO Holiday’.”

The AIC spoke with Rami Kassis, the Executive Director of the Alternative Tourism Group (ATG), a Palestinian NGO specializing in tours that critically examine the history, culture and politics of the Holy Land.

“Tourism in Palestine is supposed to be one of the main pillars of our economy…Before the Oslo agreement and the PA there was more restriction in tourism. Israel is controlling tourism until now. They want to guarantee that there is no direct interaction between the local community and the Palestinians and the tourist. They want to guarantee that Israelis are benefitting from the tourism.”

According to Kassis, Palestinian cities have never been mentioned on Israeli tour maps. Tourists in Israel are always discouraged from visiting Palestinian cities and meeting Palestinian people.

“In Palestine, as in many other places world wide, tours are designed to mainly isolate the tourist from the current political, social, historical and economic context. However, many people have started asking for an alternative,” Kassis told the AIC.

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