TEL AVIV--Tourism, Israel's No. 1 "export" in terms of dollar return, is in trouble. The figures for 1981 show a 2 percent decline in foreign visitors in 1981, the first downturn since 1975. But that alone does not tell the story. The rate of increase prior to 1981 has been in sharp decline for five years, an indicator that the Israeli government has been slow to recognize. In addition, hotel occupancy last year averaged only 54 percent.

Perhaps more significant is the steady drop in tourists from the United States (down 10 percent in two years) and, more particularly, the Jewish traveler who had been the legendary mainstay of Israeli tourism. Only about 150,000 American Jews visited Israel last year, down from an estimated 190,000 in 1980.

Startlingly, Christians outnumbered Jewish visitors worldwide.

Belatedly recognizing a tourism emergency, the government and tourism entrepreneurs are engaged in what may be an over-optimistic effort to double tourism within five years from the present one million to 2 million worldwide visitors.

In pursuit of that goal, the industry recently summoned 1,000 international travel agents, tour operators, ethnic travel promoters and journalists to Tel Aviv on a pre-paid junket to hash over the issue.

Given the seal of Menachem Begin himself, the prime minister's conference on tourism was, logistically, an extraordinary production. The delegates--from 22 countries--were treated to a dizzying bombardment of food, drink, tours and spectacles. Diversions included belly dancers, Bedouins, and a menagerie of live animals, including a camel, in the lobby of the host hotel, the Tel Aviv Hilton.

Put together in only 42 days at a cost of $1 million to Israeli industry (the government kicked in only $50,000), the conference undoubtedly generated considerable good will as well as some business. But, with typical Israeli openness, it exposed shortcomings in Israel's tourism structure, a lack of consensus within government about tourism's future and the absence of a formal financial commitment to the tourism goal.

The conference was barely under way when a representative of the Ministry of Transport unloaded a bombshell: A set of new regulations severely restricting charter traffic to Israeli cities serviced by Israel's economically stressed national airline El Al. The news was hailed by tour operators dealing principally with scheduled airlines, but it horrified those delegates whose income depended on charters. Among those most caught by surprise by the toughness of the regulations were officials of the tourism ministry.

Said Zev Melamid, whose Metro Airways charters flew 28,000 U.S. passengers to Israel in 1981 in competition with El Al and TWA: "I might as well drop Israel right now and shift to other markets. This is a devilish action, deceptively innocent. By eliminating mixing (allowing charters to include homebound or travelbound Israelis on one leg of a journey to fill up flights) they're putting me out of business. And this is the way they want to increase tourism?"

On the other hand, the new regulations were an attempt to impose some order on the savage undercutting of tour and seat prices that has emerged since Israel opened its skies to charters about two years ago.

The key issue to emerge, however, was Israel's lack of financial commitment to tourism promotion. Its Ministry of Tourism, resurrected just six months ago after four years in eclipse as a minor branch of another department, is limping along on a budget representing less than one-tenth of one percent of the overall government outlay.

Rafael Farber, the tourism department's young, energetic new director, publicly pleaded at the conference opening for up to $30 million in promotion funds. But on the final day, Finance Minister Yoram Aridor, struggling to harness Israel's balky economy, bluntly advised the tour operators and travel agents, in effect, to "ask not what we can do for you, but what you can do for us."

The attitude was a blow to the tourism ministry's new campaign, already launched in magazines and newspapers, to transform Israel's image from a "heavy destination" of Biblical and archeological sightseeing to that of a Mediterranean playground of sun, beach and leisure. The new slogan, displayed everywhere at the conference, is "Israel: The Miracle On The Mediterranean."

This has special significance for the United States market, where a recent tourism survey showed an enormous potential of interest among general pleasure-seeking travelers who now perceive Israel as a remote, brooding and possibly dangerous Middle East country.

"Israel has become the Ingmar Bergman movie of the travel business," said Geoffrey Weill, director of public relations and marketing for Israel tourism from North America. "We're perceived, wrongly, as being in a state of constant turmoil." Plus, people come here, sleep on buses for 10 days looking at ruins and go home telling their friends, "It was marvelous, but now we need a week in the Carribean to recover."

This is particluraly true of the Jewish market, which Weill says candidly "is drying up the way it has been sold in the past."

"Our survey showed that 30 percent of American Jews have seen Israel, which is fine. But their kids are not going. This new generation has money and wants a good vacation. American Jews have been told everything about Israel except having fun. Seeing Israel has become a guilt trip, an obligation.

Weill sees the ideal Israeli profile paralleling that of Greece, which attracts 600,000 Americans a year, double that of Israel. Greece offers a combination of history, sightseeing, climate and beachfront leisure. "We want to let people know it's okay to come to Israel--not to ignore the historic--but to spend part of their time enjoying our beautiful beaches at Eilat or Tiberias."

Unquestionably, Israel's leisure amenities have expanded enormously in the past decade with the development of the Tel Aviv beachfront, the booming Eilat resort (a haven for European winter escapees), the Dead Sea health spas and the Sea of Galilee. But they have a way to go to satisfy the pampered American sun-fun tourist.

"There is work to be done," said Farber, Israel's tourism director. "Some of our beaches are dirty, and we don't have enough miles of developed beaches."

"If you take away the stretch of Sinai that goes back to Egypt in April, Israel has only 10 miles of developed beaches. We also need to develop more economic facilities. The emphasis until now has been on luxury hotels and the trend today is in popular tourism."

Farber is trying also to control hotel industry abuses--such as undercutting of room prices which frustrates tour operators selling advance packages, and the exorbitant charges for extras--restaurants, bars etc.--that inflate the package tourist's vacation bill.

"But the budget is the key," he said. "Tourism is not like a factory which promotes its own goods. Our product is the state of Israel, and it's the role of the government to sell the product, not the role of the trade."

Hoteliers like Haim Shiff, who developed the idea of the tourism conference as chairman of the industry's new tourism council, are more emphatic:

"If we don't increase tourism immediately, the whole hotel industry is going to be bankrupt. We have 26,000 rooms now that we can't fully fill, with 12,500 more under construction or planning. We either get more tourism or we close up."

Farber sees this as an exaggeration. "I'm not sure it's a crisis. For example, in January of this year our figures show an increase of 4 percent over the same month in 1981. But there's no doubt we're worried. To have empty hotel rooms is a waste of the means of production."

The conference served to highlight these issues in an environment of candor and free exchange. The fact that it was called signals a new awareness of Israel's economic stake in tourism (nearly $1 billion a year earned income, more than diamonds or agriculture), and the danger of drift and indifference. Whether awareness translates to fiscal commitment is the key question in Israel's tourism future.

Aarons, a former newsman, is now free-lancing in Israel.