By JOSEF FEDERMAN, Associated Press
JERUSALEM (AP) — When Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat stares out at his city, the one-time venture capitalist sees fresh opportunity: He believes he can turn Jerusalem into one of the world's leading tourist destinations, on par with New York, Paris and London.
In a city known as much for its religious strife as its religious sites, this will be no simple task. But Barkat, sounding very much like the businessman he once was, says he has a product that's easy to market. He confidently predicts he can nearly triple the number of visitors over the next decade.
"There are very few cities like Jerusalem that have such potential, with over 3.5 billion people on Earth who would like to come visit Jerusalem at least once in their lifetime," he said in an interview. "The brand Jerusalem is one of the most powerful brands in the world."
Since taking office 3 ½ years ago, Barkat, 52, has presided over an ambitious development plan that has brought in new sporting and cultural events, opened a light rail system that has helped renew the long-neglected city center and boosted the number of international visitors by a third, according to the Tourism Ministry. In April alone, some 300,000 people are expected for the Easter and Passover holidays.
Barkat says Jerusalem attracted some 3.5 million tourists last year. That number is higher than the 2.7 million estimate given by the Tourism Ministry — a discrepancy caused in part by the difficulty of measuring the number of visitors who come for the day and do not stay overnight in hotels.
When cities like Paris and New York get as many as 50 million visitors a year, Barkat says his goal of attracting 10 million tourists annually — about the level of Rome — is "just the tip of the iceberg of the potential of the city."
It is no wonder that Jerusalem is the country's leading tourist destination, attracting 80 percent of all those who visit Israel, according to the Tourism Ministry. The ministry says Jerusalem is a central aspect of its efforts to market Israel internationally.
The word "Jerusalem" takes on almost magical connotations for many. Holy to Judaism, Christianity and Islam, it is a city where biblical forefathers roamed the streets and is home to famed holy sites like the Western Wall, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the golden-capped Dome of the Rock.
History and intrigue seem to lurk inside every crevice of the city's cobblestone alleyways, bustling open-air marketplaces and parched hills. The city also has a biblical zoo, a surprisingly vibrant nightlife and culinary scene, a top learning institution in Hebrew University, the respected Israel Museum and the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum.
But problems also plague modern-day Jerusalem. It is among Israel's poorest cities, with rundown areas in both Jewish and Arab sections and an outdated road system often snarled with traffic. Relations between Jews and Arabs — and between religious and secular Jews — are often tense.
Any attempt at development, no matter how well meaning, can be politically explosive, as Barkat himself has learned. His plan to develop a ramshackle Arab neighborhood outside the walls of the Old City has run into fierce opposition from residents, who accuse the mayor of trying to cement Israel's control over the eastern part of the city that it occupied in the 1967 war — and which the Palestinians claim for their capital.
Israel claims the whole city as its capital and has annexed east Jerusalem — which the world community has not recognized. Some 200,000 Jews now live in the occupied area of the city alongside about 300,000 Palestinians, and 300,000 Jews live in the western part of Jerusalem — a diverse, combustible metropolis of almost a million.
Excavations have also sparked protests by Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox population, which objects to any construction that risks disturbing ancient Jewish graves. With 3,000 years of history, ancient burial sites can potentially be found in virtually every corner of the city.
Tourism operators complain of more mundane problems. They say the dire shortage of hotel rooms and open space, narrow and overcrowded roads and a lack of parking are all serious constraints on future growth.