Yes, there are still boatloads of tourists. And plenty of places to drop cash on King David Street stepping down from the Jaffa Gate, and the antiquities shops along the Via Dolorosa. Not to mention the Arab shopping districts of El Wad and Suq Khan leading off from the Damascus Gate – or a great Armenian tavern in the otherwise forbidding Armenian Quarter.
What’s going on?
Talking to shopkeepers, business is down. The random attacks of late 2015 reinforced the sense of the Old City as unsafe – a perception that has carried forward to today. Especially at night, there is little going on except at the Jaffa Gate or on King David. The shops and restaurants at the Muristan near the Church of the Holy Sepulcher close up as the sun goes down.
The Jewish Quarter is the exception. Retail is new (as with recent storefront development on the old Roman cardo) and there is a great, always active public gathering place near a central synagogue.
While Christians account for over half of tourists, tourist publications reportedly have shifted to more actively promote Jewish sites, de-emphasizing the Christian and Muslim attractions.
And with the exception of the Jewish cardo, the Old City feels, well, just dated! Not hip.
There are other factors at work, as well:
- The tourist demographic is changing from American and western European to countries with less disposable income – places like Russia, the Philippines, Latin America, and China (the one notable exception regarding spending capacity).
- Traditional shopping streets like King David are so congested with passersby it’s hard to stop and window shop.
- Many purchases that could be made because of concerns about getting the goods through customs. Who wants to buy pepper and be interrogated about the substance at the Philadelphia airport? Or worry about legality of purchase of artifacts and their removal from Israel?
- And while the walk through tight, ancient streets may be attractive at the start, it gets old quickly. For some, the lack of auto, taxi and transit access makes the walk in and through the Old City simply less competitive for retail traffic.
- Conversely, streets of the Armenian Quarter and much of the Christian Quarter have little to no active street life – but are institutionalized enclaves, walled from the street.
- The focus of Jerusalem shopping has shifted to nearby districts such as Ben Yehuda Street and the Mamilla Mall (just off the Jaffa Gate) – for tourists as well as locals.
- For millennials, the action is not even in Jerusalem but Tel Aviv.
- There is relatively little lodging directly in the old city except at the edges – depriving the district of the 24-hour vibe desired by hipsters and supportive of a more secure nighttime dining and entertainment environment.
- Traditional bricks and mortar shopping is down generally as the internet takes a bigger bite and as consumers shift from buying merchandise to spending for experiences. For example, Jerusalem should be a perfect place to buy books. But who does, anymore?
- And somehow Trump hangs over it all. Will he abandon the two-state solution? A deal-maker for better days ahead? Or incendiary?
What’s to be Done?
Well, probably not much – at least near term. Longer term, some ideas to think about:
- More public open space, like the plaza now at Jaffa Gate and in the Jewish Quarter
- People mover, transporting people, for example, from Jaffa Gate to area of the western wall.
- Shifting the retail mix to include infotainment packages – not just the same old merchandise
- Getting more nighttime dining and entertainment
- More hostels and boutique lodging
- Better packaging of Old City trip experiences (rather than as stand-alone destinations)
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