Israel will be opening its first-ever tourism office in Brazil this summer as part of its efforts to boost tourism to the Holy Land by Christian pilgrims.
Israel will also be reopening in the US its Atlanta tourism office, which merged in 1995 with the Dallas office, the latter of which closed in 2003 due to the downturn in tourism. The Rio de Janeiro bureau in Brazil will be Israel's only tourism office in South America.
Those two locations - Rio de Janeiro and Atlanta - have tremendous numbers of evangelical Christians who could be enticed to visit Israel, according to the Tourism Ministry. The two branches will also do outreach to the Jewish communities in the respective regions, but that won't be the focus.
"The potential in South America is for pilgrimage travel more than Jewish travel," explained Ari Marom, the ministry's director of marketing operations for North America, pointing to the significantly smaller number of Jews than Christians on the continent.
He estimated that 80 to 90 percent of recent South American tourists have been Christian. Some 70,000 came last year, a significant increase over the annual average of 50,000 South American visitors in the four previous years. Before 2000, however, the number had been 150,000.
Marom said South American tourism has suffered from a lack of direct flights, though Air Madrid is planning to open service to Israel from several South American destinations via Spain in the coming days.
According to Marom, one of the reasons Atlanta was chosen to host Israel's third tourism office in the US (the others are in New York and Los Angeles) is its direct flight to Tel Aviv, which Delta is scheduled to begin on March 28. (Marom noted the date was chosen before elections were announced.) The Atlanta location will allow the tourism office to work with Delta as well as major Christian organizations in the area.
"We're focusing on a market segment that is not coming here for vacationing or relaxation purposes but for religious [and] spiritual purposes," he said, explaining that media initiatives would be tailored accordingly.
He added, however, that the major push would still be to change Israel's image as a dangerous destination and to send the message that "Israel is a safe place to visit."
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein of the International Fellowship of Christians and Jews welcomed the decision to open the two offices, commending the Tourism Ministry on its efforts to expand tourism among evangelical Christians and strengthen bonds between them and the Jewish state.