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The politically sensitive tourism industry has had a reawakening over the past year, which officials are banking on to continue into 2006.
After four lean years during the Intifada, travelers have made a notable comeback to Israel in the past year, and one need just walk the streets of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Eilat and Tiberius to confirm the positive trend that government statistics have suggested.
Indeed, the Central Bureau of Statistics reported that 2005 ended with over 1.9 million tourist arrivals recorded, showing a 27 percent increase over 2004. And while many feel a similar growth will occur this year, Tourism Minister Avraham Hirchson has set his sights on a more ambitious target of three million tourists arriving in the country.
"We have everything in Israel, and people want to come. If the geopolitical situation continues as it has, it is definitely possible to achieve," Hirchson said in an interview with The Jerusalem Post where he outlined a number of key issues in the local industry that are contributing to the growth.
"An increase in tourism has an immediate impact on the economy where every one million tourists create 40,000 new jobs all over the country in all fields - that translates to a $2 billion contribution to the economy."
While the Minister is confident in achieving these goals, he is cautiously aware that the geopolitical situation could be their undoing. Still, unfazed by the possible negative effects which a Hamas led Palestinian Authority may have on the industry, he is determined to keep a "business as usual" attitude.
"Our relationship with the outgoing Palestinian Tourism Minister [Zyad Bandak] developed into a good one and we achieved a lot to bring about cooperation with him," Hirchson says. "Now we have to wait and see what will be with Hamas."
The minister adds, optimistically, that he has been hearing comments from within Hamas that offer some hope the terrorist group will adopt a more moderate doctrine now that it has been voted into a position of leadership.
Until now, collaboration with the Palestinian Authority included encouraging tourist traffic between Jerusalem and Bethlehem by easing its flow.
In 2004, 51,000 people passed through the border between the two cities. Last year, that number jumped to 300,000 people, Hirchson notes, citing Tourism Ministry figures.
To continue that trend, the government opened a bureau at the Rachel crossing between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in December, to coordinate between Israeli and Palestinian authorities.
Cooperation also came in the form of an agreement Hirchson made with his Jordanian, Egyptian and Palestinian Tourism counterparts in September, in "The pillars of civilization tour," to work towards a joint marketing campaign to promote "packaged" tourism to the region.
"There is an additional matter at stake," he says. "That when the world sees the ministers of tourism talking and meeting, they will realize it is not dangerous to come here."
Further extending Israel's regional reach, Hirchson and Turkish Tourism and Culture Minister Attila Ko agreed this week at the International Mediterranean Travel Market (IMTM) that the two countries would cooperate to promote tour packages that include both destinations.
The Russian invasion
While the Turkish deal will focus on sharing the influx of Chinese tourists to Turkey and the expected increase in South American travelers to Israel, Hirchson hopes to capitalize on another population group renowned for traveling - the Mediterranean region.
He counts as one of his 2005 successes passage of a bill that eases the bureaucratic process Russian tourists must endure to obtain a visa to Israel. Although the Interior Ministry was concerned this would lead to an influx of illegal foreign workers, the new process has been enacted on a one-year experimental basis.
"The granting of visas from Russia to Israel was a very difficult process which could take up to two months to complete, and the result was that virtually no one from Russia came," Hirchson says. The new system, which will be ready in April, will enable Russian tourists to apply for a visa via the Internet and receive an answer within three days.
"This is a great change and we're already preparing a very aggressive marketing campaign in Russia to take advantage of it. We forecast that between 250,000 to 300,000 will come to Israel this year," Hirchson says. "In addition, we know they travel a lot in the region - in Turkey, Cyprus, Greece etc. - and are confident they will add Israel to the list because of the prevalence of the language spoken here."
Ministering to the Ministry
While the Russians show encouraging prospects for the future, Hirchson recognizes that the biggest growth population last year came from Christian tourism. Unofficial figures indicated that Christian tourists made up 42% of the total tourist arrivals, an increase from 33% in 2004.
With this trend in mind, the Ministry is sending a delegation to the National Religious Broadcasters 2006 Convention & Exposition (NRB) in Dallas, Texas towards the end of February, to advance key projects designed to boost evangelical tourism to Israel.
"It's our 13th visit there, and our mission, as always, is to continue our partnership with the broadcasters to show every day life in Israel, strengthen our relationships with the evangelical community and promote opportunities for tourism in Israel that they may not be aware of," says Rami Levi, director of marketing administration at the Tourism Ministry, who will be one of the delegates at the conference.
Due to the forthcoming elections in Israel on March 28, Hirchson will not make the trip.
Christian Heritage Center
High on the ministry's agenda at NRB will be to make progress on the proposed establishment of the Galilee Christian Heritage Center, and advance relations with evangelical leaders involved in the project, in particular televangelist Pat Robertson.
The government has committed to provide the land and logistical framework for the center, while the evangelical community has agreed to provide the funding for the project - an estimated $50 million.
Earlier this year, Hirchson snubbed Robertson, who was expected to lead the center's fundraising drive, because of his comments suggesting Prime Minister Ariel Sharon was being punished with illness for carrying out the disengagement from Gaza.
Robertson subsequently apologized for his comments, and the first direct contact between representatives of the two, since the incident, will be made at the NRB.
Sources close to the project have expressed concern that the Christian fundraising effort has yet to gain any momentum.
On the government's side, Hirchson says it will soon be ready to start signing contracts to present plans for the project, and that it has set aside 500 dunam of land for the development of the center and the adjacent garden and nature park.
"We are going to NRB to make contact with the participants and explore all possibilities," he adds.
Building for the project is expected to start next year, to be ready in 2011, when the ministry said it will attract over 750,000 tourists per year, thus boosting Christian tourism even further.
Opening Israeli skies
Confident the trend will continue, Hirchson noted that the return of Delta Airlines, operating direct flights to Tel Aviv from Atlanta, would have a significant impact of opening up Israel to new markets of foreign visitors.
"Not only does Atlanta provide an excellent base from which to work with the evangelist population, that they don't have to fly via New York to get to Israel, it also gives South American evangelists another option to fly here," he said.
Aviation, and in particular the "liberalization of Israeli skies," has been a hot topic in Israel and one which Hirchson sees as the number one driving force to increase tourism.
While Israel and the US enjoy an open skies policy, allowing any company to fly a route between the two countries at will, Israel's bilateral agreements with European countries offer limitations on capacity.
"Flights coming in from Europe are full, and on the other hand there are no direct flights from South America," he explains. "South Americans wishing to come to Israel need to go via Europe and there aren't enough seats to provide for the traffic. The liberalization of the skies will help ease this."
In addition to allowing the major airlines to increase their capacities to Tel Aviv, the Tourism Ministry has targeted the low cost charter airlines to start flying the route, which it claims will bring flights to Europe costing between $150 and $200 return. German company TUI recently started flights from Germany, and plans to begin flights from France and Holland, while Air Madrid is also scheduled to launch flights to Israel in the summer.
Hirchson also announced at IMTM that Argentinean airline Aerolineas Argentinos has requested to start direct flights from Argentina.
Gambling on Eilat
Efforts to bring in more charter companies fit well with the tourism industry's ambition to advance Eilat as a major destination for Europeans. Already, Hirchson says the city has benefited from the rise in charter flights there.
Ministry figures show that some 35,000 people flew direct to Eilat in 2004 and double that arrived last year. Hirchson notes this is a direct result of charter companies that started flying the route during 2005 and he predicts this year will see 150,000 people flying direct there.
The Minister has big plans for Eilat. In addition to reestablishing attractions such as the Red Sea music festivals, he is pressing forward with presenting the possibility of establishing a casino there, based on the Las Vegas Strip concept.
"People involved in the industry have told me that a casino in Eilat has the potential to bring one million foreign tourists to the city," Hirchson says. "But it has to be done properly to ensure that negative elements don't creep in."
On the backdrop of the 2005 successes in the industry and the business frameworks that have been created, Hirchson is confident of reaching his three million tourists goal. And while there may be optimism, and a sense of relief, amongst tourism players that the worst is behind them, the effects that the Intifada had on the industry is not forgotten and lingers.
In the meantime, Hirchson adopts a business-like attitude and stresses the potential the industry has for the country.
"We need to recognize the economic value in tourism or we will not be able to compete with countries around the world who do understand this," Hirchson concludes. "I believe that the biggest economic driver in Israel can be tourism and hope that we will be successful in customizing ourselves to making the tourist feel welcome."