Israel is looking to China as a lucrative source of tourism, and the Tourism Ministry opened its first tourist office in Beijing last Sunday - one of only 15 such offices around the world. A Chinese-language course for tour guides also began instruction last Sunday in preparation for an expected influx of Chinese tourism. According to outgoing Tourism Minister Ruhama Avraham-Balila, "Chinese tourism has great potential for Israel and the Tourism Ministry is working to remove obstacles and to welcome the Chinese tourist, in order to realize this potential with the passage of the global economic crisis." In September 2008, Israel signed an Approved Destination Status agreement (ADS) with China, as the first step in increasing Chinese tourism to Israel. The agreement provides for organized Chinese groups to travel to Israel. The agreement is expected to greatly increase Chinese tourism to Israel, according to Tourism Ministry statements. From January through August 2008, 8,600 Chinese tourists visited Israel, a 39% increase from the same period during 2007. In all about 15,000 Chinese tourists visited Israel in 2008. "During the last decade, China's outgoing tourist market has demonstrated rapid growth and it is still considered to have a significant growth potential," said Avraham-Balila. Due to the current global economic crisis hopes only to maintain the same numbers of Chinese tourists in 2009, according to Pini Shani, director of the Overseas Division of the Marketing Administration of the Tourism Ministry. Also detrimental to this newly forged connection was a "rough warning" issued by China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs telling Chinese citizens not to travel to Israel during Operation Cast Lead, he said. Nevertheless, "Israel hopes to see an increase to 100,000 Chinese visitors annually in the next five years," said Shani. Now in its first week, the five-month long training program, which certifies leading Chinese and Japanese group tours, teaches participants about the unique nature of Chinese tourists, their preferred tourist sites, entertainment, services, and customs. The course has 40 pioneering participants, mostly of Chinese origin, with several Chinese and Japanese speaking Israelis. In conjunction with the Trade and Industry Ministry, the Tourism Ministry has held professional training sessions geared for chefs from hotels and cooking schools around Israel in Asian cuisine. According to the Tourism Ministry, ethnic food options are key to Chinese tourists in picking travel destinations. The new office in Beijing plans in the coming year to increase activities with the Chinese tourism industry to sponsor Israel and its many tourist and leisure choices to the Chinese tourist. The Tourism Ministry stated that also top on the agenda is competing successfully with existing tourism destinations for the very sought after Chinese market. The Beijing office will be courting Chinese tourism wholesalers to offer Israel vacation packages, organizing guidebooks for Chinese guides, and arranging study-tours for Chinese media and travel agencies. In the last decade, Chinese tourism has grown dramatically, and is considered to be the greatest potential source of growth in the world for outgoing tourism, according to the Tourism Ministry. Chinese spend $375 billion annually on overseas travel, and an estimated 100 million Chinese tourists will travel overseas by 2020, figures which makes China a much desired friend to wave the Israeli flag.