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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
A cabinet subcommittee has unanimously recommended ending a visa requirement for Russian visitors to Israel, a step that could lead to millions of dollars in additional annual revenue for the country's tourism industry. Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich, who had pushed for the creation of the ministerial study group, hailed Wednesday's decision, saying the proposal left "Israel poised at the opening of a new era" in its ability to attract foreign visitors.
The study group's "green light" represented the successful conclusion of a multi-month battle by the Tourism and Interior Ministries, which have been pushing for the policy change since June. The move was initially opposed by the Foreign and Public Security Ministries, which had argued that easier access to Israel for Russian tourists would also mean higher levels of Russian-organized crime and human trafficking in the country. Foreign Ministry spokesman Mark Regev declined to comment about his office's change of position Wednesday evening, saying the ministry was referring questions on the matter to the Tourism Ministry.
A spokesman for that ministry attributed the new consensus to additional research on the issue by the plan's original opponents, saying Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni "did her homework" on the subject and had been won over during subsequent conversations with Aharonovich. Wednesday's vote followed a one-month period of "checking the details" and addressing points of concern with the Tourism Minister, ministry spokesman Amatzia Bar-Moshe said.
Opponents of the policy change had been receptive, he added, to the ministry's suggestion that Livni pursue a parallel modification that would cancel the visa requirement for Israelis visiting Russia. Bar-Moshe said Livni had received a "nice answer" on the topic from the Russian Foreign Ministry, though he noted that the issue hadn't yet been resolved.
Having received the support of the ministerial subcommittee, the proposal will now move on to a general meeting of the cabinet, which will vote on rescinding the Russian visa requirement in its first meeting in September. Should Russia decide to cancel its own visa requirement for Israeli visitors, the decision may be announced during a scheduled October visit to Israel by Russian Prime Minister Mikhail Fradkov.
Increasing the number of Russian visitors to Israel has been a priority for the Tourism Ministry since before Aharonovich's appointment as minister in March. An Ernst & Young report commissioned by Aharonovich's predecessor recommended focusing on Russia as a major source of potential visitors to Israel, noting the country's large population, soaring economy and relative proximity to the Middle East.
Russians have logged roughly four million visits to the region annually over the last several years, including two million visits to Turkey and one million to Egypt. Aharonovich has said he hopes to "double or even triple" the number of Russian tourists to Israel in the coming years, arguing that 4,000 jobs and $100 million are added to the national economy for every 100,000 visitors to the country.
Despite last summer's war with Hizbullah, tourist arrivals from Russia were up 76 percent in the first seven months of 2007, totaling just over 77,000 arrivals.
The number includes one-day visits to Israel by Russians entering from Jordan and Egypt, the result of a new program jointly implemented by the Tourism and Interior Ministries.