Plan to fly in Christian tourist group ‘crucial to industry,’ Tourism Ministry official says as security concerns weigh over planned flights.
By RON FRIEDMAN
Twenty-eight thousand Nigerian pilgrims who were supposed to arrive in Israel in the upcoming months will have to find alternative carriers, after the Transportation Ministry’s security department barred El Al from flying to the country’s capital Abuja for fear of terrorist threats.According to Rafi Ben Hur, a senior deputy director-general at the Tourism Ministry, the pilgrims were scheduled to fly on El Al chartered planes leased to a local airline in a series of flights between November to January.RELATED:Ethiopian Community kicks off Sigd FestivalThrongs of Christian pilgrims to be in Jerusalem for SuccotThe planes, El Al’s Boeing 747-400, were to be leased to Nigeria Airways, but operated by El Al’s crew and cabin staff.As a safety precaution, the airline’s logo and symbols were to be removed.“The massive pilgrimage is a state project in Nigeria. They subsidize the Christian’s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, just as they do the Muslims’ pilgrimage to Mecca. We cooperate with the Nigerian government on all tourism related issues and attempt to remove all the obstacles they encounter,” said Ben Hur.“The Transportation Ministry won’t let any Israeli airline fly to Nigeria, so the solution will probably have to be based on foreign airlines. The biggest looser in this case is El Al, which was forced to give up on a large amount of passengers.”Ben Hur was optimistic that a solution would be found and that the thousands of tourists would make it to Israel.Advertisement“We are meeting with the Nigerian ambassador this evening and with the organizing team on Sunday. I’m sure we will be able to work out a solution. We do not plan to give up on these groups, their visits mean too much for us,” said Ben Hur.According to Ben Hur, the Nigerian pilgrimages have been taking place since the beginning of the decade and the number of people continuously grows every year.“We owe a great appreciation to the Nigerians. They were the only tourists that arrived in Israel in our hardest times, during the second intifada. When everyone else stayed away, they continued to arrive and filled up our empty hotels,” said Ben Hur.“Even today, when tourism numbers are back up, they help us out during the quietest time of the year.“Twenty-eight thousand people visiting Israel for 10 days contribute a great deal to the tourism industry and the national economy by staying in hotels, dining in restaurants, renting buses and hiring tour guides. They are also the nicest visitors we could ask for,” he said.Ben Hur added that he hoped the Tourism Ministry could intervene on the pilgrims’ behalf before the Transportation Ministry, but said he honored its position and wouldn’t compromise security.“It would be a shame if they can’t fly directly to Israel. Any stopover reduces the length of their stay here and too many logistics may reduce the number of arrivals,” said Ben Hur.In March 2009, Israir brought about 15,000 pilgrims from Nigeria to Israel in an airlift operation involving some 60 flights that lasted more than two months.Both El Al and the Transportation Ministry declined to comment on the issue.
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