Tourism Ministry: Directive to insure vacations abroad ignored

Four consecutive tourism ministers failed to implement a 2002 decision calling on the government to ensure financial protection for Israeli tourists, according to the State Comptroller's Report released Wednesday. The complaint, which deals with the period before the March appointment of the current tourism minister, Yitzhak Aharonovich (Israel Beiteinu), was one of five lodged against the Tourism Ministry by State Comptroller Micha Lindenstrauss, who also criticized the Tourism and Transportation Ministries for failing to properly monitor the country's hotels, tour operators and tourist transportation providers. The report also called on the Tourism Ministry to create a better system for collecting and responding to tourist complaints, saying the issue bears both economic and "political" significance for the country. Focused on the period up to September 2006, the report offered no critique of the Tourism Ministry's response to last summer's war with Hizbullah, nor did it provide suggestions for aiding the tourism industry's ongoing attempts at recovery. Israeli tourists remain financially vulnerable when they travel overseas, the report said, because the Tourism Ministry still has not overseen the creation of an insurance fund protecting reservations and purchases made via Israeli travel agencies. The government charged the ministry in 2002 with the formation of such a fund, which would have been financed in part with mandatory contributions from Israeli travel firms and would have ensured tourists' bookings would be honored even if an individual travel agency were to go out of business or otherwise fail to provide the services promised. The 2002 law called for the Tourism and Finance Ministries to collaborate on the creation of the fund, and the Comptroller's Report proceeds to name the four tourism ministers - MKs Benny Alon, Gideon Ezra, Avraham Hirchson and Isaac Herzog - who failed to make the fund a reality. The report noted the Tourism Ministry's response to a December 2006 inquiry on the subject, with the ministry responding that it was pursuing the issue but had run into opposition from the union of travel agencies responsible for participating in the fund's creation. Elsewhere in Wednesday's report, the comptroller called on the Tourism Ministry to more efficiently identify and impose fines on tour operators working without a proper license, as well as on transportation providers such as tourist bus companies not accurately reporting their business to the government. The report also noted the Tourism Ministry's failure to monitor the quality and service of overnight tourist lodging not registered with the government, calling on the ministry to officially register all Israeli hotels, bed and breakfasts and other forms of lodging. The report called on the ministry to devise a system for more consistently checking the quality of Israel's overnight tourist lodging, noting that even many registered facilities go for years at a time without ever undergoing government inspection. Noting that the satisfaction of both domestic and foreign tourists is vital to the country's public image and tourism revenues, the Comptroller's Report also called on the Tourism Ministry to devise a better method for collecting and responding to tourists' complaints. Complaints are currently collected by region but are never analyzed on the national level, the report said, allowing deficiencies to persist in Israel's treatment of its visitors. A Tourism Ministry spokesperson reached for comment Wednesday said he was still reviewing the Comptroller's Report and that an official response had not yet been formulated.