(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov is scheduled to visit Belarus on Friday, where he will sign a five-year tourism agreement thatwill renew automatically.
Meseznikov is working to strengthen the relationships between Israel and countries of the former Soviet Union. Belarus will be the second such country he has visited since taking up his post on March 31. Meseznikov was in Russia three weeks ago, following a visit by Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman.
Building a connection with Russia is one of Meseznikov's main priorities, Amnon Liebermann, the spokesman for the minister, told The Jerusalem Post on Wednesday. The ministry's first step was eliminating the requirement for Russians to obtain visas before visiting Israel. The agreement rescinding the visa went into effect in September.
Russians are the second largest national group to visit Israel, following Americans. In 2008, nearly 360,000 Russian tourists came, up from 193,000 a year earlier.
"There is a huge potential for tourism from Russia and other countries of the former Soviet Union," Liebermann told the . "It is a high priority for the ministry to reach out to these countries."
The agreement to be signed with Belarus will reduce obstacles that stop many from coming to Israel, he said. Many of the problems center on expensive flight prices.
But Meseznikov will have to solve problems closer to home if he wants to attract more Russian tourists. Some Russians who have chosen to visit Israel have faced "humiliation" and at times "discrimination" during security checks at Ben-Gurion Airport, according to Leon Greenberg, adviser to Boris Spiegel, president of the World Congress of Russian Jewry.
"They give some of these tourists severe security investigations for no good reason," Greenberg said. "We understand that Israel needs security, but not when it is offensive."
He hopes Meseznikov's visit will encourage more Russians to visit. The country has great potential to become a popular tourist location, but tourists who have faced unwarranted and severe security investigations upon arrival will not be quick to return, Greenberg said.
"The ministry hopes that security checks will be minimized in order to make the tourism easier and help to increase it," said Liebermann, the tourism minister's spokesman.
The ministry has received many complaints about security checks, he said, and is working to improve tourists' experiences and impressions of Israel.