During the event, IHA President Eli Gonen presented a briefing on the tourism industry's achievements in 2008.
"The general assembly convenes at the end of a peak year for the tourism industry, with some 3 million entries by visitors to Israel, including 2.5 million tourists (visitors who stayed in the country more than 24 hours).
"Compared to 2007, this constitutes a growth of 30% in the number of visitors and a rise of 19% in the number of tourists," he noted.
In terms of employment and economy, Gonen said that "this was a year in which we proved the extent of the potential tourism holds. Some 32,000 people are employed in hotels today, and some 150,000 are employed in the tourism industry and related sectors. This means we have 7,000 additional employees compared to 2007.
"The tourism industry's contribution to the national product totaled about NIS 28.7 billion (roughly $7.47 billion) – about NIS 15.4 billion ($4 billion) from incoming tourism and NIS 13.3 billion ($3.46 billion) from internal tourism. Tourism's contribution was about 4.7% of the national product this year."
Waiting for a crisis
The IHA's General Assembly, which was held Tuesday at the Tel Aviv Hilton Hotel, called on decision makers in the government to increase the investment in tourism immediately, and particularly in budgets aimed at marketing Israel across the world in order to avoid a drop in the number of tourists and a mass dismissal.
According to Gonen, "The paradox is that this year's accomplishments should lead to an increase in the budget for the encouragement of tourism in order to utilize to the fullest the potential hidden in this industry. However, the government is ignoring the achievements and failing to increase the Tourism Ministry's budget.
"Moreover, while most tourism countries in the world are allotting significant investments to marketing following the global financial crisis, here they're just ignoring it, simply waiting for a crisis.
"We demand that the government allot an addition of NIS 150 million ($39 million) to the marketing of Israel in the world. Even now, at the start of a recession, with a budget increment we will be able to raise the number of tourists by 8%, create 4,600 more workplaces and increase our contribution to the GDP (gross domestic product) by NIS 2.7 billion (701.5 million).
"We are in need of budgetary aid, with which we will pay back every shekel with compound interest, which will be invested in tourism. We have also offered to transfer investments to the construction of new hotels and the improvement of tourist infrastructures.
"Unfortunately, however, the Treasury is stalling. Therefore, we sadly declare today that if immediate steps are not taken, incoming tourism will drop dramatically next year to only 1.9 million tourists, and we'll be forced to deal with the dismissal of some 20,000 employees."
IHA Acting President Ami Hirstein said, "We have returned to the achievements of incoming tourism from 2000 after many years of losses, but we have also foreseen a fundamental change in the mix of incoming tourism, which points to several weaknesses: A high percentage of Jews compared to non-Jews and a high percentage of relatives' visits, compared to a drop in the percentage of religious tourism and sightseeing and vacation tourism, as well as a growth in one-day tourism."
According to Hirstein, "There's no doubt that the global financial crisis will also have an impact on the global tourism industry. It's safe to assume that the main damage will be caused to flexible tourism demands, like vacation and cheap mass tourism, as well as tourism derived from the business sector. We're lucky that Israel is not a mass and cheap tourism product, and therefore there is a chance we'll suffer less than other countries.
"The State of Israel is a niche destination, a cultural destination. For a significant number of tourists this is a 'once in a lifetime trip'. And most important, we constitute a destination for tourists from a high socioeconomic class. We expect these segments to suffer less, and therefore if the State reinforces its marketing efforts significantly, we may not only maintain the current situation, but also manage to increase incoming tourism, especially from Russia and Germany."