Saturday, December 2, 2006

Tourism is a good predictor

There is good news for Haifa, my hometown.

At present and for the last few decades, there is continuous outflow of young people from Haifa. This is somewhat surprising. The city is endowed with natural beauty and two leading institutions of higher learning – Technion and Haifa University. Many young people come to Haifa to study. But I know of almost no middle-aged family in Haifa who has not experienced the discomfort of the kids leaving the city as soon as they reached the age of leaving home. Fortunately, the age at which kids leave home is increasing.

The result of this out-migration by young people has created a stigma. In some sense, Haifa is a "has-been city". Despite its burgeoning hi-tech industry young professionals prefer to commute to the city from as far as 100 km. Many hi-tech companies provide shuttles to Haifa from as far as Tel Aviv as well as from the local train and inter-urban bus stations.

To emphasize the dire situation of Haifa, I should mention that the traditional industries on which the city was built have been declining for a long time now. The Haifa port and the refinery have competitors to the south. And so have many other smoke stack industries. Fortunately, the leaders in Haifa are not advocating that we invest effort in bringing to Haifa growing industries in which we have no competitive advantage.

What can be done to change this trend? How can we keep skilled people from leaving the city?

The ongoing debate between Richard Florida and Ed Glaeser concerning the means to keep people, and skilled people in particular, from leaving a city makes me optimistic about the future of Haifa. The Florida vision is that the by creating dense, bohemian downtowns, tolerance and arts it is possible to attract the creative class. The Glaeser vision is that good schools, relatively short commuting times by car and street safety are the key. Well, we have good schools and commute times in Haifa, including from the outer burbs, are relatively small. Also, Haifa is has the reputation of co-existence of Arabs and Jews. Finally, the mayor is an arts freak.

But what make me most optimistic is that tourists are coming to Haifa. Despite the fact that the city has only 700 modern hotel rooms, the tourists have discovered the 8th wonder in the world of tourism… The Bahai hanging gardens are unsurpassed by any place in the world. Also, before long the Carmelite Order will complete the renovation of their sacred gardens at Stella Maris, the spiritual home of the Order. Haifa will become the world's capital of gardens and parks.

As Ed Glaeser claims, tourism is a greater predictor of how well a city is doing. Intensive tourism reflects a positive view of a place. A city with tourists suggests that the city has positive characteristics.

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