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Following the attack by Palestinian terrorists Sunday in which two soldiers were killed and one kidnapped, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert assured tourism industry representatives on Monday that the government would take the necessary steps to ensure the national security situation would be such that tourism continues to increase.
"We are going through a difficult period and will do whatever it takes to bring Gilad Shalit back to his family," Olmert said at the annual conference of the Israel Hotels Association in Jerusalem Monday. "But I decided to come [to the conference] during this time to honor people that contribute to an important aspect of the economy and to industry.
"Despite the difficulties, it is vital that we continue the momentum of growth that we've seen in the last few years and we will do all that needs to be done to make sure this happens."
Olmert added his voice to the list of speakers at the conference in support of a program to increase the number of hotel rooms in the country and invest in tourism infrastructure.
In line with this, Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog said at the conference that he had concluded an agreement with Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson to reinstate the procedure in the investment law to return 25 percent of the capital costs to investors building new hotels in Israel.
The two are in discussions to extend that commitment to include investments by existing hotels to build new rooms and to carry out upgrades.
The annual gathering of the hotel sector's elite hinted at a change in focus, from the liberalization of the country's aviation policy to investing in infrastructure as the primary vehicle required to grow tourism.
"We have enough seats on flights into Israel this summer - some 20% more than last year," Avi Friedman, Chairman of the Foreign Airlines Association in Israel told The Jerusalem Post. "The problem now is the shortage of infrastructure, and a need to build more hotel rooms if we are going to have four million tourists by 2008."
Friedman added that as more companies are flying to Israel, bringing cheaper ticketing, there was a demand to match this with cheaper accommodation to effectively sell Israel as a package.
Long a proponent of "opening the skies," Finance Minister Hirchson also listed the need to increase the room count among the key requirements to ensure the country reaches its tourism potential and one which the Finance Ministry would be working with the Tourism Ministry and the Prime Minister's office in the coming years to achieve. He added that it would also be working to ease the bureaucratic processes tourists have to endure during their stay here.
Hirchson also responded to the IHA's call to make tourism the preferred industry in Israel, saying the government would work to ensure that the industry "take its place amongst the elite in the economy in Israel."
Also at the conference, IHA president Avi Ella said that he would be stepping down from his position after eight years at the umbrella organization's head. He will be replaced by Eli Gonen, the general manager of Sheraton Israel.