Tourism Minister Uzi Landau is a strong believer in Israel's potential to become a major force on the global tourism stage.
Speaking at the second annual International Tourism Conference in Jerusalem on Tuesday, Landau told the audience, "Let me be clear: We believe in our product. We believe in what Israel has to offer to a tourist. We live it day to day [and have] for thousands of years."
On Monday, Landau told Israel Hayom that he intends to "focus first and foremost on strengthening domestic tourism, and to invest in incoming tourism focusing on Chinese and evangelical target audiences."
"To emphasize the domestic tourism aspect, we will promote falling in love with the country again, to get up and walk the land. There is a vital need to strengthen everything related to the depth of our roots in the land, to reconnect with everything pertaining to geography, history, wildlife and nature," he said.
Landau said Israel was barely scratching the surface of its potential for foreign tourism.
"In Europe, 6 percent of GDP is generated by incoming tourism [and] in some of these countries the number is as high as nine percent," Landau said. But in Israel the number was only 2.3%, "despite having much to offer."
During his speech Tuesday, Landau said, "The significant economic value of the tourism industry is well understood in Europe. One such country is Greece -- which is at the forefront of the economic crisis -- where tourism is at record-breaking levels generating income, employment and most importantly, hope. In 2012 alone, 11 million tourists visited Greece, a nation with just 11 million residents.
"Egypt welcomed 11 million tourists in 2012, and Jordan more than 4 million tourists. We learned that most of the tourists make up their minds on their travel destinations several weeks in advance. Therefore, tourism generates income for the economy in the immediate time frame. That is a huge advantage in times of austerity. This is true for Israel as well."
Landau said that a greater focus on marketing efforts was required to create an influx of visitors.
"Just look at the numbers. Investments of 240 million shekels [$65 million] in marketing budgets generated $29 billion of internal and international incoming tourism," he said. "Since 2009, the Tourism Ministry has increased our investment in marketing to just 50 million shekels [$13.5 million]. But that investment generated around 6 billion shekels [$1.6 billion] in national income. This is math every elementary school kid can understand."
Landau also mentioned recent decisions by the government and international agreements it has reached with other countries to open Israel's gates and make the country more attractive to tourists.
"The Israeli government wisely decided to vote against rescinding the tourism VAT exemption for incoming tourism," Landau told the audience. "This is also the reason the government unanimously decided to pass the Open Skies agreement that allows low-cost flights between Israel and Europe. This will lower prices for tourists coming to Israel from or via Europe, and for Israelis to fly to Europe.
"I should mention: These steps paved the way to advance tourism in Israel, but in order to reach the full potential we need more marketing and branding activity. If we do not so invest, we will not feel the full effect of the Open Skies agreement."
Landau told Israel Hayom of his plan to focus on the tens of millions of evangelicals in the U.S. and China, where there is an enormous target population.
"We are the cradle of Jewish and Christian civilization. This is where the prophets roamed, this is where the Bible was written, this is where some of the extraordinary historical events occurred, and all we are managing to get across to the world is 2.3%? It's not enough," he said.
On the high cost of hotel stays in Israel, Landau said: "The solution is to increase the supply, invest in hotel construction, especially geared toward low-end two- to three-star domestic tourism and youth hostels. It's not always necessary to invest in five-stars. Once there is greater competition the hotels will be forced to lower prices."