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(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Rebuffed last month in efforts to cancel the visa requirement for Russian tourists, Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich (Israel Beiteinu) revived the issue Sunday with the creation of a cabinet-level committee.
Aharonovich will oversee the committee and presents its recommendations to the cabinet in the coming weeks. He will work with four other ministers on the committee, including Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni.
Tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue for the economy is at stake, according to the Tourism Ministry. Israel would attract a greater proportion of the four million tourists from the former Soviet Union who visit the Middle East each year if the visa requirement were canceled, the ministry said.
Some 100,000 citizens from the former Soviet Union visit Israel annually, significantly fewer than the two million who travel to Turkey and the one million who visit Egypt. Cyprus, smaller in both size and population than Israel, attracts 800,000 FSU tourists each year.
"The need to receive a visa prevents the majority [of potential Russian visitors] from arriving in Israel," Aharonovich said. "Tourists from Russia are choosing instead to visit other countries in the regionâ€¦ and are going back to our neighbors for return visits."
Each 100,000 visits to Israel, the Tourism Ministry says, adds 4,000 jobs and $100 million to the national economy.
While acknowledging the potential economic benefits of canceling the Russian visa requirement, the Public Security and Foreign ministries are expected to oppose the plan. They argued in June that its activation would exacerbate crime and social problems, and could even raise the threat of terrorism.
Visits by Russian tourists are up 54 percent this year, boosted in part by Tourism Ministry efforts to ease passage into the country for one-day visits from Egypt and Jordan. More than 24,000 Russian tourists have visited Israel through the new program, which was organized with the help of the Interior Ministry.