Israel seeks to repair potential harm to growing Russian tourism

Tourism Minister Avraham-Balila: It's encouraging that the Russian media portray it as a serious traffic accident that could happen anywhere.

Last week's horrific bus crash near Eilat, which claimed the lives of 24 Russian travel agents, was clearly a blow to the boom in Russian tourism to Israel but is not expected to cause long-term damage, according to industry sources. "I believe in the short term, it will have a dramatic effect, especially until we give a clear answer on how this disaster occurred," a local travel agent told The Jerusalem Post. "In the long term, though, the demand from the Russian market to travel to warm climates is so strong that hopefully it will be put into proportion." According to a diplomatic source, the Russians understand that traffic accidents can happen everywhere, and they were reassured by the statements and actions of Israeli officials after the accident. President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert were quick to make calls to their Russian counterparts to express their shock and condolences. Two planes with relatives of those on the bus and medical personnel were flown here from Russia, and returned the victims home. The crash occurred as the number of Russians visitors to Israel began rising dramatically, and just a month ahead of what was expected to be the peak of their tourist season over the Russian Orthodox Christmas period. Some 8,000 Russian tourists arrived in Eilat on 58 direct flights in November, over double the number in the same month last year, the Tourism Ministry said. Tourism from Russia has grown steadily since September, when Israel waived its visa requirement under a reciprocity agreement with Moscow. The two countries launched direct charter flights from Eilat to Moscow and St. Petersburg just last month. More than 400,000 Russian tourists have visited Israel in 2008, double last year's figure of 190,000, the Tourism Ministry said. The tourist bus that crashed north of Eilat last Tuesday afternoon was carrying a delegation of 49 agents from five different travel agencies from St. Petersburg. They were here to scout the territory for future tour groups. They flew to Israel on a charter flight operated by a company named "Russia" from St. Petersburg, landed at the Ovda airport and left in two buses in the direction of Eilat, the Tourism Ministry said. At about 3 p.m., according to the driver of the first bus, the second bus driver sped past him after impatiently trying to overtake him for some time. Apparently unaware of the dangerous curve in the road, he crashed through the guard rail and plunged 80 meters down a ravine three kilometers north of Eilat, killing 24 of his passengers and injuring most of the others. The injured were evacuated to the Yoseftal, Barzilai and Soroka for treatment. Tourism Minister Ruhama Avraham-Balila instructed representatives of the Tourism Ministry to open a situation room, and a Russian-speaking representative of the ministry answered dozens of calls to its hotline from families seeking information. "The Tourism Ministry will continue to work to strengthen the bonds of friendship and tourism between the countries at this difficult time," Avraham-Balila said. Visiting the injured at Assaf Harofeh Hospital on Wednesday, she added: "Russia is a close friend of Israel and it is encouraging to see that, even in the Russian media, they note that this was not a targeted attack but a very serious traffic accident that could happen anywhere in the world." Russia is already the second largest source of tourism to Israel after the United States, and is on the ministry's list of countries with the highest tourist potential. The ministry announced last week that 2.8 million tourists visited Israel between January and November this year. This represents a 35 percent increase over the same period last year, it said. November alone saw 260,000 visitors to Israel, 25% more than last November. "2008 will be Israel's all-time record year for tourism," Avraham Balila said. "This success is of fundamental importance as income from tourism registered significant increases this year, reaching NIS 26 billion." She noted that thousands of new employees had begun working in the tourism industry, and said that as a result of the growth in tourism, the ministry is appealing to new job-seekers and opening new training courses. It said there are currently about 4,000 vacancies in the tourism industry, mainly in the hotel sector, that offer opportunities for job seekers in the periphery. "As a result of the continued growth in incoming tourism, the Tourism Ministry is initiating and operating training courses in the various branches of the tourism industry," it said. "In the near future, courses will open for women in tourism sales and marketing in the North, entrepreneurial courses for women and bed-and-breakfast owners in the Druse sector, service workshops for taxi drivers in Eilat, and tour-guide courses for Russian and Chinese speakers."