A Visitor’s Observations On Israel

by Maskil on June 22, 2009

There’s a tradition that anyone who visits Israel gets to offer their opinion (usually unsolicited) regarding what’s right with it, what’s wrong with it, and what should be done by Israelis to fix it.  I see no reason why I should be the exception to that rule, although I won’t be that ambitious.

I visited Israel for about ten days in the 2nd half of March this year, attending The World Union for Progressive Judaism’s CONNECTIONS 2009 convention.  That’s already almost three months ago, so I thought I should put these notes in order before my observations lose their freshness altogether.

Ten days (and most of that time spent within the confines of conference centres) is not really enough time to claim expertise on any aspect of Israel or Israeli society.  It’s enough time to form some impressions regarding the face that Israel presents to the visitor, however; whether on business, vacation or a religious pilgrimage.  I’m therefore confining my remarks to those impressions and (surprise, surprise) how Israel’s impact on its tourists can be improved.

An English-Language TV Channel

As a conference delegate, I didn’t get to spend a whole lot of time watching TV, but I did notice the apparent lack of a local English-language TV station (still).  English is the language of international commerce, tourism/hospitality, and just about everything else (including most of the Diaspora).  I shouldn’t even have to try to motivate this; it’s just something Israel needs to have.  Just a 24/7 “loop” of news, weather, sport, traffic, financial information, etc.  All the usual stuff a business traveller might expect, presented from a local perspective (preferably by gorgeous Israeli women).  Just do it!  (This is entirely separate from the externally orientated “Al Israela” I’ve discussed elsewhere.)

English In The Hospitality Industry

Yes, we in the Diaspora need to do a better job of learning Hebrew too, but more of those involved in the Israeli hospitality and tourism industries (and even just service industries and public servants in general) need to be at least competent in English.  Trust me, this will be one of the best investments Israeli tourism (and the individuals themselves) can make.  English is the “lingua franca” of the connected modern world, and Israel cannot afford to be left behind.

More Information For Tourists

Have more tourist information stands at strategic locations.  Make sure that hotels, hostels and B&B’s keep a stock of tourist information brochures and pamphlets.  Due to flight availability, we ended up with two days free time in Jaffa.  We spent most of the time walking around, without ever encountering a visitor friendly information stall, sign or brochure (apart from a map we obtained from the hostel).

Business Hours

Shops appear to keep very strange hours, and only the largest post their business hours on the storefront.  There’s plenty of room here to make it easier for visitors, by sticking with more conventional business hours and posting these hours in the storefront window.

More Bureaux De Change

We found it easy to change US Dollars at the “Change” cubicles in Jerusalem’s Old City, but something of a mission everywhere else.  Banks appear to have abdicated their role as BDC’s (apart from being very expensive).  The Israel Post Office branches turned out to be the best bet for exchanging currency, but I’m not sure that many visitors would know this.  The bottom line is that more BDC’s are needed, particularly in areas frequented by visitors from abroad.

Pre-Paid Mobile Phone Cards

At home in South Africa, I am used to being able to buy a pre-paid mobile (cellular) phone SIM card and the airtime to go with it practically anywhere (including ATM’s and just about any retail outlet).  While in Israel, however, I only came across one shop selling pre-paid SIM cards and airtime, and it was closed at the time.  I’m guessing that, like me, many visitors would like to have a local number for the duration of their visit, without having to take out a contract.

Buses

The bus service was still as good as I remembered it from the early 80s, albeit less used by the man in the street.  Having a standard fare irrespective of how many stops you travel is a great idea for both drivers and passengers.  Just one suggestion:  place more bus route maps at bus stops, e.g. at all bus shelters.  We found these to be quite useful where available.

Sherut Taxis

These shared taxis were once second only to Dan and Egged buses in importance as far as public transport is concerned.  They now appear to have been displaced by normal metered taxis.  I would suggest that there is still a role for Sherut taxis (particularly for routes such as those to and from the airport), sitting between buses on the one hand and private taxis on the other.

Israel’s Water Crisis

In a previous blog post, I suggested that the hospitality and tourism industries in Israel could play a far greater role in making visitors aware of Israel’s water crisis, and helping to mitigate the impact of the traveller on Israel’s scarce water resources.

Urban Trees

Given the proud achievements of the KKL-JNF over the last century, I was surprised to find urban (sidewalk) trees and local parks to be a scarcer resource in Tel-Aviv than I would have expected.  Once again, my observation is from the traveller’s perspective, but putting more emphasis on greening Israel’s urban centres would benefit both residents and visitors, and even the planet itself in a small way.

Hijacking Of Sites Of Historical Interest

There’s a growing trend for sites of archaeological, historical or religious interest to be hijacked by the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) minority in Israel.  These sites are then transformed from sites open to all into what are effectively ultra-Orthodox synagogues, with partitions and extreme dress codes being imposed on all visitors.  This trend needs to be resisted.  Israel needs to take back these sites and hold them in trust as the common heritage of all, not just the exclusive domain of an extreme minority.

An Urban Facelift

Israel’s classic 3-4 story square cement apartment blocks could also do with a facelift.  Addressing just these three aspects could completely transform much of Israel’s older urban landscape, making then more visually appealing for both residents and visitors:

  • Paint or coat the exteriors in either white or off-white
  • Conceal all external surface wiring and pipes by means of conduit or some form of trellis
  • Find ways to conceal or otherwise make external air-conditioning units less of an eyesore

Urban Blight

The urban blight in the very heart of the sidewalk café heart of Tel Aviv is shocking and incongruous, and completely out of key with Israel’s current economic status and the image she should be trying to convey.  There needs to be an urban renewal partnership between central and local government, private enterprise and conservation bodies to inventory these buildings and take a restore/renovate/demolish decision for each building.  (Such an initiative is obviously way beyond the mandate of the Israeli tourism authorities, but they should certainly be taking an active interest in it.)

The Famous Sabra Abrasiveness

Finally, Israelis should be complimented on the huge gains in all round civility that has taken place in the last few decades.  There’s still a lot of room for improvement, however.  While the Israeli Sabra myth still held sway, that famous Israeli abrasiveness and directness was an acceptable part of the whole package.  Given the erosion of Israel’s image over the last four decades, however, perhaps it’s time to reintroduce a lot more good old fashioned courtesy.

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