Aliya in 2008 dropped by some 20 percent, but the number of returning expats increased by almost 100%, according to figures released by the Immigrant Absorption Ministry over the weekend. During the past year, some 16,000 new olim made their home in Israel, a drop of some 4,000 from the ministry's count of 20,000 in 2007. It is even a steep drop from the most conservative count for 2007 aliya - 18,219 - made by the Central Bureau of Statistics. Meanwhile, nearly 8,800 Israeli expats returned home, a jump of 94% from 2007's 4,535. These figures reflect a dramatic shift among government bureaucrats away from a focus on aliya, which in 2007 hit its lowest point in 19 years, and toward a new outreach to attract "yordim" - a pejorative term for expats that is quickly losing its sting. According to ministry figures, Israeli expats are a desirable demographic. Of some 14,000 expats who returned to Israel between 2004 and 2007, 30% were academics, scientists, researchers, engineers or technicians, 40% had academic degrees and 54% were between the ages of 20 and 44. In other words, it is a demographic that tends to be skilled, educated and of working age. An Absorption Ministry study reported Sunday found that returning expats repay their absorption package to the economy within 18 months, and on average are 30% more productive than the average citizen. This economic reality inspired a new program in late 2007 through the ministry and the Tax Authority, offering unprecedented incentives to returning Israelis. Titled "Returning Home on Israel's 60th," the program is the ministry's flagship project, and the financial benefits it offers are almost on par with those given to new immigrants. These include a 10-year grace period during which overseas income is untaxable, a government subsidy covering some of the National Insurance penalty required to rejoin the national health care system, help in finding employment, and special benefits to attract returning researchers and scientists. According to Immigrant Absorption Ministry spokeswoman Meital Noy, the 2008 figures show that the incentives program, made even more desirable by a slowing global economy, has been a dramatic success. More than half of the 2008 returnees - 4,773 to be exact - came from the United States and Canada, she noted. Indeed, Immigrant Absorption Minister Eli Aflalo noted that much of the credit belonged to the world financial crisis, which he said was "creating a window of opportunity we should not miss." He called on "all Jews and Israelis around the world to move to Israel and benefit from the financial assistance we're offering to help them settle in the country." Ministry officials are predicting a further jump to 12,000 returning expats in 2009. The incentives program is slated to end at the end of that year.