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The Virtual Tour Guide

It seems to be the perfect companion for traveling in Israel: a tour guide that comes with an “off” switch.

Last November, Israel’s Tourism Ministry launched a free iPhone and iPad application that identifies your location anywhere in the country and suggests nearby sites and attractions to visit, providing the contact details for each one and telling you what you will find there.

Within a little more than a month of the application’s debut, I could see that 22,818 people had downloaded iSrael from iTunes. But I wondered whether the virtual tour guide was a public relations gimmick or a solution for vacationers that eliminated the need to plan itineraries. On a sunny January day, I put it to the test.

To use the app as would one who just arrived in Israel, I pretended I had just walked off a plane at Ben Gurion International Airport and was keen to explore Tel Aviv for the first time. My obvious course of action would be to take a train to the city, and the first station in the center is Tel Aviv HaShalom, so that’s where I began.

Upon powering up the application, I was given two options: “sites” or ready-made day plans called “tracks.” The “tracks” section was empty, so I went for “sites,” and then selected “around me.” It quickly and accurately worked out my location and, among other options, offered an attraction just 0.15 kilometers (165 yards) away.

It was the Azrieli Observatory, located on the 49th floor of the famous Azrieli Center Circular Tower, from where visitors can enjoy breathtaking views of Tel Aviv and beyond from the pinnacle of the city’s tallest skyscraper, learn about major landmarks via rented audio guides and telescopes, take in a 3-D film on Tel Aviv or check out the temporary art exhibitions. The fact there were no “tracks” offered was disappointing, but forgiven. This was a great beginning to the day, just a few footsteps from my starting point.

Back on ground level, the app obliged with some more possible destinations. The closest was the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, just 0.73 kilometers (half a mile) away, so off I went. Arguably Israel’s most impressive permanent art collection, the museum boasts works by Vincent van Gogh, Marc Chagall, Camille Pissarro, Jackson Pollock and many other important artists. There are impressive temporary exhibits: I caught one on Israeli architect Dov Karmi, and another with the self-explanatory title “Neo-Expressionist Painting From Berlin.”

iSrael had given me a good start to my day thus far, and it certainly minimized any schlepping around, providing me with two great attractions very close to my starting point. But then I began to notice some irritating design flaws.

First, the English text suffers from a sense of something being lost in translation. There’s a rarely updated function for viewing “events,” and one of the categories is called “festivals and happenings.” The Hebrew word for “happening” denotes a big, exciting event (like a carnival), but it leaves the average English-speaker confused.

Second, there is no option for ranking suggested destinations in order of distance from a certain point. Rather, if one wants to survey what’s offered, one must work through the various categories — archaeology and history, museums and culture, nature and animals, families and children, national sites, and parks and gardens — and make a mental note of what was in each.

And unlike with Google Maps or other navigation applications, there is no option to find out what will be close to your next stop, so you are unable create an itinerary. There is no function offering directions to the sites, either, and there isn’t even a small-scale map or any basic travel information. The contact information for sites listed is pretty idiosyncratic — sometimes just a phone number, sometimes just an address.

Also, as you may have gathered from my description of distances so far, while the app was created especially for English-speaking tourists, who are likely to be more familiar with miles than with kilometers, all distances are provided in the latter, which can prove confusing.

But the main reason all these quirks were getting to me at this point in the day was that I was hungry: The app’s creators didn’t program in any function for directing users to cafes or restaurants. On humanitarian grounds, I broke my daylong rule of going only to places recommended by the app, and found a cafe for lunch.

An hour later, and with a full stomach, I returned to the art museum and surveyed my options for the afternoon. The app is a bit overly weighted toward very nationalistic sites: It suggested the Palmach Museum, which is dedicated to the pre-1948 Jewish militia; the Israel Defense Forces History Museum, the hall where Israeli independence was declared, and the home of Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion. The showing of sites of cool, contemporary Tel Aviv was poor. Even the Carmel Market — a must, in my opinion, for every tourist — didn’t come up.

But after a bit of back-and-forth between different categories of sites, I hit on an interesting idea: a visit to Holon, a part of the Tel Aviv conurbation that isn’t popular with foreign tourists. The app told me that 8.11 kilometers (5 miles) from the art museum was the Israel Children’s Museum, and that slightly closer were two interesting-sounding outdoor attractions: the Japanese Garden and the Cactus Garden.

The Children’s Museum, where adults and kids can go on fun, educational trails, is a delight; the Japanese Garden is tranquil and beautiful, and the Cactus Garden is either interesting or creepy, depending on your take on cacti. I was impressed that the app guided me to an area that I probably wouldn’t have thought of visiting, to show me things off the standard tourist trail.

My verdict on the app at the end of the day? Lots of missed opportunities and room for improvement by developers, but it does radically change the experience of being a tourist. No matter where you are in Israel, you can push a button and, without any planning, local knowledge or a guidebook, find interesting things to see and do nearby. Well worth downloading.

Contact Nathan Jeffay at [email protected]

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