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Income from tourism reached $4.7 billion in 2005, showing growth of 11 percent from the previous year spurred by the sharp rise in foreign visitors, the Tourism Ministry said Tuesday.
In presenting an overview for the year, the ministry said over 1.9 million foreign tourists arrived in Israel in 2005, contributing $2.5b. to the country's coffers, while local tourism brought in $2.2b. The income fell well short of the benchmark year 2000, however, when 2.7 million visitors contributed $400b. before taking into account local tourism.
"The additional 400,000 tourists that arrived last year over 2004 created 16,000 jobs and contributed $800 million to the economy," the ministry said in a statement. "Tourist related businesses employed around 80,000 people in 2005, of which 25,000 were in hotels and the remainder in restaurants and caf s, shops and transportation services."
The Central Bureau of Statistics is scheduled to release the exact final total of tourist arrivals for the year today.
The Ministry's overview showed a 78% rise in first-time visitors during the year while the number of tourists on organized programs doubled to 400,000.
The largest contingent of travelers came from the US, which brought in 450,000 travelers throughout the year, 20% more than in 2004. Some 315,000 French tourists also arrived in the country, an increase of 22%, while 160,000 British tourists, or 7% more than in 2004, also visited. Completing the top five were 105,000 German tourists, showing a rise of 36%, and 75,000 Italians - 75% more than in 2004. Other big growth markets were Russia, with an increase of 20% to 65,000 arrivals, and the unmatched 150% growth in Spanish tourists at 50,000 for the year.
All religious groups showed growth, with the most notable increase of 60% coming from Christian visitors.
Tour guide Martha Rettig, of Israel Experts Educational Initiatives, said the improved security situation was the main driving factor for the rise.
"People never stop being interested in coming to Israel, but want to feel safe here," Rettig said. "We now see more Birthright participants and a large increase in Christian tourists, both amongst evangelicals and Presbyterians."
She noted that Israel is doing a better job at marketing itself but said it can do more to attract visitors and make their stay more pleasant.
"People come anyway because of the interest Israel holds, but much can be done to bring more tourists and improve the cleanliness of many of the sites and cities they visit," Rettig said.
Looking ahead, Tourism Minister Avraham Hirschson has set a goal of bringing in 3 million foreign tourists in 2006, a figure first reported by The Jerusalem Post last month, which is well above industry forecasts of 2.4 million. Industry professionals said at the time that the goal was somewhat optimistic and that a 20% annual growth was more realistic. They also highlighted the need to prepare the local tourism infrastructure to accommodate the expected influx of visitors.
In line with this, Hirschson said he has submitted a request to the Finance Ministry, to establish a NIS 500 million fund to provide grants for renovating the country's hotels and building new ones.
Other projects he has highlighted as focal points to boost tourism in 2006 include closer cooperation with neighboring countries, the liberalization of Israel's aviation policy and giving the go ahead on the casino project in Eilat.