The slogan "Israel Under Fire," used by various Israeli government bodies during Operation Pillar of Defense last November, was disastrous for Israeli tourism, the head of the Tourism Ministry's marketing department said Monday.
Speaking at a conference at Haifa University on public diplomacy during the eight-day operation, Oren Drori, deputy director-general of the Tourism Ministry and the head of its marketing efforts, said the slogan caused "serious damage to the Israeli tourism market."
Incoming tourism fell 19 percent in November and December 2012, likely due to the military offensive. In December, only 239,000 tourists visited Israel, a relatively low number compared to previous Decembers.
Drori said it was only now that Israeli tourism was starting to emerge from the damage caused by the operation, launched by Israel on Nov. 14 against Hamas' terror infrastructure in the Gaza Strip.
Drori said there was an inherent conflict between what he, as a private citizen, would want to see in the media, and what he, as the man responsible for marketing Israel to overseas tourists, would want to see.
"Many people inside the tourism ministry were in shock when they saw the 'Israel Under Fire' website, because every rocket that lands and is reported on sets us back in terms of marketing tourism in Israel," he said.
Also speaking at the conference, Yarden Vatikai, director of the National Information Directorate in the Prime Minister's Office, backed up Drori's claim, saying that despite the "hasbarah value" of the slogan "Israel Under Fire," there was no reason to highlight rocket attacks against Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
"At the end of the day, Israel still wants to attract investors, tourists, immigrants and such," Vatikai said.
The "Israel Under Fire" slogan was used by the Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson's Unit and the Foreign Ministry on their various social media platforms, including Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, as a means of positioning Israel as the victim of Hamas' indiscriminate rocket terror against Israeli civilian populations. The social media platforms showed Hamas rocket strikes in Israeli cities and photos and videos of Israelis rushing to bomb shelters, as well as giving an updated rocket count.
However, Drori did say that the operation, which ended with a U.S.-and Egyptian-mediated cease-fire, was relatively short and swift compared with some of Israel's other military operations and wars, and that this minimized the damage to tourism.
An issue which may soon complicate Israel's tourism marketing efforts is the government's decision to start charging tourists the value added tax. The Tourism Ministry last week slammed Finance Minister Yair Lapid's plan to impose the VAT on tourism services.
Tourists have long been exempt from VAT on various services, such as hotels and car rentals.
A further issue which may complicate tourism marketing, if only for some, is the recent decision by the Attorney-General's Office allowing the Shin Bet security service to ask suspicious tourists for their email passwords.
This, and other factors, could explain why Israel's tourism sector finished 53rd in a global ranking released by the World Economic Forum for 2013, a drop from 46th in 2011 and 36th in 2009.
In the Middle East, Israel ranked third, behind the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
The World Economic Forum's Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Report attributed Israel's drop in the world ranking to a number of factors, including terrorism concerns, decreasing price competitiveness (133rd out of 140 ranked countries), and increasing fuel prices, hotel prices, ticket taxes and airport charges. The report also cited a perception that general taxation in Israel was growing more distorted.
On a positive note, the report said Israel benefited from its cultural attributes, including a number of World Heritage sites. Israel ranked highly in the categories of health and hygiene (26th) and information and communications technology infrastructure (27th).