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(photo credit: Courtesy)
Russians and Israelis have moved a significant step closer to being able to visit each other without tourist visas, a development that could add tens of millions of dollars in annual revenue to the Israeli economy within the next few years.
Following months of lobbying efforts by the Tourism Ministry, the cabinet voted Sunday in favor of cancelling the visa requirement for Russian visitors to Israel - a move that will take effect should a reciprocal cancellation be enacted by the Russian government. The issue is now being passed to the Foreign Ministry, which will pursue the mutual visa cancellation with its Russian counterpart.
Though the fate of the proposed policy change remains uncertain, Sunday's cabinet decision represented a meaningful victory for the Tourism Ministry, which has campaigned aggressively in recent months for the cancellation of the visa requirement for Russian tourists. A 2006 Ernst & Young study commissioned by the ministry identified Russia as a major source of potential tourism revenues, noting the country's booming economy, relative proximity to Israel and status as a key provider of tourist traffic to other Middle Eastern countries.
Officials of the Foreign and Public Security ministries have argued in the past that the Russian visa requirement was necessary to prevent increases in human trafficking and organized crime in Israel, but reversed their positions after meetings this summer with Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich.
Israel, which has attracted roughly 100,000 Russian visitors annually in recent years, has been dwarfed in competition by Turkey and Egypt, each of which have greeted a million Russian visitors annually. The Tourism Ministry attributes the gap to Israel's status as the only nation in the region to require visas for Russian passport holders.
Even without changing its visa policies, Israel has enjoyed a significant boost in tourist traffic from Russia this year, witnessing a 76 percent rise in visits from the country in the first seven months of 2007.
The Incoming Tour Operator Association, an ally of the Tourism Ministry in the visa campaign, has predicted that the revocation of the Russian visa requirement could lead to the arrival of as many as 200,000 additional Russian tourists by as early as 2009 - an increase it estimates would add 8,000 jobs and $200 million to the national economy.
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