Asia-Pacific News

Jerusalem Mayor Hopes for 5-Fold Tourism Increase

Jason Gewirtz|Senior Producer

Jerusalem's new mayor, Nir Barkat, has high hopes for tourism in his city: He wants to see a five-fold increase in visitors by 2019.

"If Rome has 40 million tourists a year, and New York has 48 million, there's no reason why a city that's home to the three main western religions should be so far behind," Barkat told a group of journalists in New York Thursday. "We will see 10 million visitors a year to Jerusalem by 2019."

Right now Jerusalem brings in just 2 million tourists a year from outside of Israel. The city does that while spending only $750,000 a year on advertising. The budget is tight, but that's just one of the many challenges in promoting the city.

A fear of violence hampers tourism to Jerusalem. The city has been free of suicide bombing attacks since the summer of 2004, but that's not due to a lack of attempts. Intelligence sources in Israel say special army units have foiled dozens of planned attacks since then.

There were also two highly publicized incidents of Arab construction workers going on rampages with bulldozers in 2008, one on the eve of a visit by then Presidential candidate Barack Obama.

Barkat started venture capital firm BRM Capital during the tech boom, steering it toward becoming an Israeli leader in raising money for software and communications start-ups. Barkat is also a founding member of the Israel VentureNetwork, which paired American and Israeli high tech magnates in joint ventures.

Like just about every other city in the world, Jerusalem's been hit by the global economic downturn, but perhaps not as badly. The housing downturn in Israel has been less dramatic than in other parts of the world, as most home-buyers are required to put at least 40 percent down when purchasing a home. The unemployment rate in Israel now stands at 8.4 percent.

Barkat says his plan of investing in cultural and historic sites in Jerusalem would add 150,000 new jobs to payrolls.

"We'll need new hotels, we'll need more tour guides and we'll need to make a major investment in infrastructure," Barkat said, "and that means new construction jobs and the services that come along with these things."

He also argued that all would go up in smoke if a peace agreement with the Palestinians called for the city to be divided in two. That would be a historic mistake, Barkat said.

The mayor said Jerusalem lacks restrictions on where residents can live, and dividing the city would spell the end of such freedom for anyone living there.