No one can depict Jerusalem’s transition into the modern world better than Yoram Amir, an artist inspired by the city in which he was born and raised. As historic buildings make way for newer models, Amir fights hard to preserve his beloved city. His weathered skin details the countless days he’s braved the hot desert sun to pick through sites where ancient structures once stood. As owner of Story & Tower Museum, Amir has created a refuge for the architectural relics he finds. His own artwork also is displayed in the museum—a collection of mixed-media pieces using historic pictures combined with recent photographs that show how Jerusalem’s landscape has changed since he was a boy.
Explore the gallery and it’s clear: The Jerusalem you may have read about in holy books is not the city that exists today. Storied buildings have been demolished and replaced with modern structures; high-tech companies have built headquarters here; and academia is booming with the rise of the biomedical industry. “You can feel the cultural renaissance Jerusalem is going through,” says Michal Shalem, chief of staff to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat. As the centerpiece of 3,000 years of world history, Jerusalem is now rebranding itself as a high-tech destination, a tourism hot spot and an attractive convention city.
Before Mayor Barkat was elected in 2008, Jerusalem’s tourism market equated to that of a third-world country, says Ilanit Melchior, director of tourism at the Jerusalem CVB. In fact, the CVB didn’t exist until 2015.
Barkat spent 15 years in the technology sector as chairman for Check Point, a cybersecurity software company touted as one of the most successful Israeli companies of all time. It wasn’t until he came into office that tourism took a turn for the better. “To bring more tourism, we need to bring more conferences and change our infrastructure,” says the mayor, noting he’d like to see the city’s number of annual tourists grow from 3.25 million to 10 million by 2023.
After extensive research, Jerusalem’s government established a five-year economic plan to grow Israel’s capital city. “I believe that running a city is like running a corporation,” says Melchior, who came from a corporate background before working with Barkat to launch the CVB. “If you show the stakeholders you’re good enough, you can push whatever you want forward,” she adds. When Melchior started, the tourism spending allowance was less than $1 million per year. Now that annual budget is $50 million, and a CVB providing a one-stop shop to planners has formed. The city also sets aside grant money as an incentive to bring international planners to Jerusalem, giving roughly $20,000 to eligible groups.
Since talks to form a CVB began in 2012, conventions in Jerusalem have increased by a whopping 215 percent. “Last year we had the best year ever from the American market to Jerusalem,” says Amir Halevi, director of the Israel Ministry of Tourism. The city attracted 41 international groups in 2015 and in 2016 hosted big-name events like Forbes Under 30 Summit and Wikimedia Hackathon. “People think of [Jerusalem] as this historical place,” says Cathi Culbertson, vice president of event marketing and conferences at Forbes, “but it’s amazing how modern it is.”
Melchior admits that getting the word out about Jerusalem as a meetings destination is the CVB’s biggest challenge. “When I say ‘Jerusalem’ [to international planners], their eyes are being opened,” says Melchior. “They dream about [meeting in Jerusalem] and look at it like crown jewelry,” she says. “But for some reason, they don’t come here. … My job is to make this vision come true.”
As more international events flock to the city, planners are hearing the buzz about the modern Jerusalem and putting it on their radar. “It’s not about the 3,000 years of history. It’s about now, and the most important thing is it’s about the future,” says Melchior.
A continual rise in Jerusalem’s infrastructure is a must for Barkat to reach his goal of 10 million annual tourists over the next several years. Developments driving Jerusalem’s increasing popularity as a meetings destination include a high-speed train connecting Tel Aviv to Jerusalem expected to run by March 2018 and a new terminal at Ben Gurion International Airport, a 40-minute drive from the Holy City.
Long-term construction on Jerusalem’s City Entrance Project (also referred to as the “New Face of Modern Jerusalem” project) will transform the city’s skyline. There’s no word yet on when the development will be completed, but it’s said to bring a proposed 13 skyscrapers to the city’s business district, expand the ICC Jerusalem International Convention Center from nearly 130,000 square feet of meeting space to a reported 3.5 million square feet and add an estimated 2,000 hotel rooms to the city’s current 10,700.