Biblical Zoo is most popular tourist site A 4.5 percent drop in the number of foreign visitors to Israel last year didn't prevent a similar increase in the number of visits to the country's most popular paid-entry tourist attractions. According to numbers released Wednesday by business information provider Dun & Bradstreet Israel, visits to the country's 20 most popular, paid-entry tourist sites rose 5% in 2006, with Jerusalem's Biblical Zoo leading the pack, just ahead of another animal-oriented attraction, the Ramat Gan Safari. The Biblical Zoo saw a 24% rise in visits in 2006, with 682,944 patrons paying for admission; the Ramat Gan Safari enjoyed a 19% visitor increase to 572,710. The two sites together accounted from roughly 1.25 million of the seven million total visits paid to Israel's top 20 tourist sites last year, with the hot springs of the Hamat Gader Recreation Park ranking third for the year with some 550,000 visitors. The ancient ruins at Masada and Caesarea closed out the top five with just under one million visitors between them. Tourist attractions in Jerusalem and the Tel Aviv area enjoyed the greatest increase in paid visits in 2006, with total visits to the center of the country rising 19% and visits to Jerusalem attractions rising 18%. Visits to tourist sites in southern Israel rose 10%, while the number of visits in the north of the country dropped slightly, a development likely attributable to the summer war with Hizbullah. Sites listed in the Dun & Bradstreet ranking didn't include top tourist draws where admission is free, among them Jerusalem's Western Wall and Haifa's Bahai Gardens. New minister tours Jerusalem Newly appointed Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich took his first official trip outside the office Wednesday to tour Jerusalem, visiting the City of David with Mayor Uri Lupolianski after a brief morning meeting at City Hall. The half-day tour concluded at the city's Mount Zion Hotel, where the Israel Beiteinu MK met with tourism experts to discuss challenges facing city hotels as Israel enters the busy Pessah travel period. Aharonovich chose Jerusalem for his first visit as tourism minister to "indicate the city's place as the capital of Israel and the centrality of sites like the Western Wall" in foreign tourism to Israel, a city spokesperson said. Aharonovich's predecessor, Labor MK Isaac Herzog, visited Eilat last May on his first official trip in the position. Tourists want a kosher Pessah With seder night now just days away, hotel managers across northern Israel are learning a valuable new marketing tool: going kosher-for-Pessah is good for business. The holiday, which kicks off Monday evening, will see high occupancy rates in hotels across the Galilee and Golan Heights, the tourism statistics group Index reported earlier this week. More than 90 percent of rooms at hotels and bed-and-breakfasts are expected to fill up for the holiday, with most overnight facilities already reporting more 80% of their rooms reserved. Israeli tourists who stay inside the country for Passover often make reservations at the last minute, Index noted. The numbers get even better for hotels and bed-and-breakfasts offering glatt kosher dining options for the holiday. Rooms at glatt kosher facilities in northern Israel have already completely filled for the holiday, with Index attributing the 100% reservation rate in part to religiously observant holidaymakers from England and the US. Though a popular time for family vacations among Israelis, hotels and bed-and-breakfasts surveyed by Index also report more couples using the holiday for a romantic getaway. More than 80% of honeymoon suites and other rooms designed for couples have been reserved, the tourism tracking company reports. So do Israir passengers Religious passengers flying Israir during Pessah will be able to sit back, relax and enjoy their flights knowing the airline is going strictly kosher for the holiday. The company's Airbus fleet is being cleaned for Pessah according to "the strictest possible standards," Israir officials announced earlier this week, with the airline's own rabbi overseeing the operation. Israir will also restrict duty-free shopping on its flights to kosher-for-Pessah items, the company announced. To supplement its regular menu, airline officials said the company has purchased roughly a ton of matza and 1,000 liters of wine for the holiday. The carrier will also sell all non-kosher food items in its inventory to non-Jews before the start of Pessah, as is required by Jewish law. Israelis like to phone home More than half of Israelis traveling overseas plan to take cell phones on their next trip, a new survey has found. The poll, commissioned by Pelephone and conducted by the Market Watch research group, found that some 60% of Israeli travelers intend to take cell phones with them the next time they travel abroad, while 80% of those traveling overseas for Pessah will take their cell phones. Some two-thirds of Israelis traveling overseas send at least one text message per day to family and friends back home, while just 9% take cell phones with them primarily for professional purposes. Though large numbers of Israelis call home while traveling overseas, they're significantly less likely to use cell phones to make calls within the countries they're visiting. According to the poll - conducted by telephone, naturally - just 3% of the 500 Jewish, over-18 respondents said they would use cell phones to make local calls while traveling abroad. Pelephone is using the results of the poll to announce a special Pessah discount for customers traveling to Israelis' eight most popular foreign destinations. Pelephone customers visiting England, France, Spain, Turkey, Morocco, the US, Thailand and Holland will receive a 50% discount on conversations taking place during the holiday. Weak dollar boosts tourism to US More of those Israelis will be calling home from the US this Pessah as a declining dollar has encouraged significantly more locals to travel to the States this Pessah than during the same period a year ago. So says Moshe Marom, head of Rishon Lezion's Aladdin Travel Agency, which expects to arrange more hotel stays and travel packages to the US in 2007 because of the shekel's relative strength against the floundering buck. An exchange rate of NIS 4.2 to the dollar - compared to NIS 4.7 at the same time last year - is making Israelis feel more comfortable about spending their Pessah on the far side of the Atlantic, with airfare, dining, hotel stays and guided tours all relatively less expensive than during Passover 2006, Marom noted. Israelis are also being persuaded to go to the US by the strength of the euro, which is making vacations to old Pessah favorites like Paris and Amsterdam prohibitively expensive in the eyes of many Israeli travelers. Free parking for Arkia passengers to Eilat In an effort to fill more Arkia flights to Eilat, the Tel Aviv-based airline has begun offering free parking to passengers flying between Ben-Gurion Airport and Israel's southernmost city. The new deal, available for passengers flying round-trip between the two cities, provides free parking for one vehicle at Ben-Gurion's Terminal 1 parking facility and is intended to simplify the trip to Eilat for passengers who live outside the Tel Aviv area. Sun D'or upgrades Web site El Al subsidiary Sun D'Or International Airlines has announced upgrades to the company's Web site (www.sundor.co.il), with customers now able to book tickets on-line and read more detailed information about services offered by the company. The retooled Web site also offers detailed information in Hebrew and English about duty free shopping and foreign destinations served by the company, including weather forecasts, exchange rates and links to city and country maps.