Having exceeded its own predictions for 2005, the Tourism Ministry has set a lofty goal to bring a record three million visitors to Israel next year, well above the general consensus of growth forecasts. "Our target is realistic," said Tourism Ministry spokesman Ido Hartuv. "When [Tourism] Minister Avraham Hirschson came into office and predicted two million visitors this year, no-one believed him, and we have achieved that." The Central Bureau of Statistics said Thursday that 1.75 million tourists had come to Israel by the end of November. Hirschson predicted that by the end of the year the total would be around the 2 million mark. Industry professionals, however, felt that the forecast for an extra million tourists in one year was somewhat optimistic. They believe 20 percent growth is more realistic. "What's more important is maintaining the positive trend that we've experienced over the last year-and-a-half," said Ami Etgar, General Manager of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association. "Our forecast would be to achieve 2.5 million next year and, in so doing, reach 3 million in 2007 and even more than that after." Zion Tours CEO Marc Feldman added that unless something extraordinary "like a surprise visit by the pope, which was the real catalyst in 2000," it would be very difficult to achieve the 50% rise the ministry hopes for. Given this trend, and the possibility of achieving in excess of 4 million tourists by 2009 - on a 20% annual growth basis, Etgar said the industry needs to concentrate on preparing the local tourism infrastructure to accommodate the influx of visitors. Avraham Rosenthal, Director General of the Hotels Association said the country's hotels can accommodate a further one million tourists "which will see us through 2008." While a new hotel would take five-to-seven years from start of construction to completion, Rosenthal said there were no significant projects in the works. "Hotels are concentrating their efforts on carrying out renovations and possibly adding to the number of rooms at existing hotels," he said. "Perhaps 2006 will see the start of new projects." CBS figures show that there are approximately 50,000 hotel rooms countrywide and that the average occupancy this year has been 55%. The ministry is focusing its efforts on three areas to ensure the increased flow of traffic into Israel. Hartuv said these include easing the process for issuing visas to Russian visitors, which he believes will add 400,000 visitors from Russia and the Ukraine. The ministry, he said, is also bringing about a more liberal aviation policy and working to boost evangelical pilgrimage traffic from the southern region of the US and from South America. The ministry's greatest achievement this year has been to remove many of the bureaucratic obstacles which were blocking tourism," Hartuv said. "We will continue to focus on this."