Tourism Ministry officials said Wednesday that they do not expect the death of 24 Russian travel agents near Eilat in Israel's deadliest traffic accident in its 60-year history to negatively influence Russian tourism to the country in the long-term.
However, some local hoteliers voiced concern about the possible impact of the accident on the burgeoning Russian tourism to Eilat.
Meanwhile, Russian-speaking MKs and others in the tourism industry worked to provide aid to the victims and to try to contain any potential damage.
The Tuesday afternoon accident, in which many were also injured as they were bused from a nearby airport to the Red Sea resort town, comes as tourism to Israel is at an all-time high, with Russia the country with the second largest number of visitors to Israel after the United States.
"While, psychologically speaking, there could be more fears in the coming weeks [about travelling to Israel] we do not believe that this tragic accident will influence Russian tourism in the long-term," said Oren Drori, deputy director of marketing at the Tourism Ministry.
He added that Israel's fast response to the accident, as well as properly dealing with the injured and its aftermath could help the country bounce back.
An Israel Air Force plane was on standby to fly the bodies of the victims back to Russia pending Russian approval, while Tourism Ministry officials were meeting with relatives of the casualties and Russian medical staff who flew to Israel from Russia on two flights on Wednesday.
An earlier death toll put the number of dead at 25, but the Russian Embassy and Israel Police said Wednesday the final number was 24.
One of the more than two dozen tourists hospitalized Wednesday remained in critical condition.
Russian Embassy representatives picked up 15 relatives of some of the 33 injured tour agents and drove them to hospitals to meet their family members. However, most of the relatives arriving at Beersheba's Soroka Hospital couldn't meet their injured relatives because they were still in intensive care.
Commenting Tuesday night at the hospital on how Israel would deal with the impact of the incident, Israel Beiteinu MK Stas Meseznikov said: "We have a common language and we will try to explain to them that this horrible accident shouldn't have happened, and that it shouldn't disuade them as tour agents to market Israel as a tourist destination."
MK Robert Ilatov, also of Israel Beiteinu and a member of the Knesset Economics Committee, which deals with promoting tourism and transportation matters, said the accident would affect the flow of Russian tourists for a short time.
"I hope this accident won't interfere with the flow of Russian tourists to Israel anticipated in a month for the Russian Orthodox Christmas. I will do my best to make sure the ties will remain strong via our contacts with Russia and the Friendship Association in Moscow and St. Petersburg. Even if we see a slowing down, I believe it will only be temporary," he said.
Deputy Russian Ambassador to Israel Anatoly Yurkov agreed that the tragedy was unlikely to cause a significant drop in Russian visitors.
"I don't expect a drastic decrease in tourism, even though it is still too early to say," he told Ynet, as he awaited the arrival of the flights of family members from Russia.
Yurkov added that Russian officials trust that the Israel Police would carry out a full and thorough investigation of the accident. "But it is still too soon to say anything for sure," he added.
However, several tour operators sounded more pessimistic.
Shalom Ben-Moshe, director-general of the C Hotel in Eilat, said that the accident would have a negative impact.
"This tragic accident shouldn't have happened and could have been prevented. The death of 24 tour agents and the injury of 33 of the people who came from St. Petersburg for an introductory visit is a significant affair.
"Fourteen weekly flights land here with Russian tourists on them who come here to vacation, mainly in the luxury hotels. There is no doubt that in the short-run this tragedy will affect the flow of tourists to the city, and some of the flights will probably be cancelled. If things get back on track, it will probably take a while until this event fades from the Russian consciousness."
Ronnie Fibco, director-general of the Club Hotel chain, said that since September, Russians constituted half the tourists who had arrived in Eilat.
"Up until a few months ago, the French tourists were the main customers here, but today there are twice as many Russian tourists as French. If there were more charter flights, we would probably see even more Russian tourists in Eilat. The Russian tourists are great customers; they love to go out, drink and buy."
The accident comes as a record-breaking 3 million tourists are expected to visit Israel in 2008, surpassing the previous high of 2.7 million visitors who came to the country in 2000.
About 380,000 Russians are expected to visit Israel this year, an increase of 125% compared to last year, when 170,000 Russians came.
The impressive number of Russians visiting the country skyrocketed in part due to the waiving of visa requirements.
There are currently 18 charter flights a week to Eilat, including eight from Russia, compared to just four weekly flights last winter, the Tourism Ministry said.
Meanwhile, Tourism Minister Ruhama Avraham-Balila on Wednesday visited some of the injured passengers in the hospital, wishing them a full recovery and advising them that the ministry is at their service.
"Russia is a close friend of Israel and it is encouraging to see that even in the Russian media, they note that this was not a targeted attack but a very severe traffic accident that could happen anywhere in the world," she said.
The ministry said Wednesday that its emergency hot line has been inundated with calls from hundreds of Israeli citizens wishing to offer assistance to the injured and bereaved families, including social workers, doctors and psychologists.
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