New minister assesses Israel's tourism capabilities

Tourism officials hope papal visit will attract an additional 200,000 Christian pilgrims to visit this year.

Israeli officials are hoping that the visit of Pope Benedict XVI will boost tourism and improve Israel's image in the world. Over 15,000 Christian pilgrims joined the pope during his stay here last week, in addition to the 35,000 who arrive in the country on an average week. Tourism officials said they hope the papal visit will attract an additional 200,000 Christian pilgrims to visit the country during the rest of the year. Officials already are expecting about 2.6 million tourists this year. "I call on every person of faith in the world to visit Jerusalem at least once in their life," Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat said upon the pope's arrival last week. Briefing reporters before the pope's arrival, Tourism Minister Yuli Edelstein said that he hoped the images of the pope at prayer would push aside some of the impressions of Israel as a focus of war and violence. "I'm not naive enough to think that it will fill all the screens and that everyone will forget about the conflict," Edelstein said, but he hoped the visit would create better understanding abroad "of Israeli democracy, of religious freedom for the existing and vital Christian minority in this country." To build on the momentum of the pope's visit, Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov has begun a round of visits to tourist destinations to personally assess where tourism stands. According to the ministry's media consultant Tal Rabina, in recent weeks Misezhnikov has visited the Golan, the Upper Galilee and the Negev. "It's a matter of looking at the tourism industry as a major innovator of the growth of the Israeli era," Rabina told The Jerusalem Post. During his travels, Misezhnikov met with mayors, deputy mayors, heads of regional councils, tourism officials, coordinators of nature authorities and parks and tourists. According to Rabina, Misezhnikov and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu have agreed that tourism is a priority to improve the Israeli economy. "Every 100,000 tourists to Israel creates 4,000 employment positions," said Rabina. Among the details Misezhnikov noticed on his visits was the need for for signs to be written in languages aside from Hebrew and English, such as Russian, French and Spanish. He also noted that the explanations at some tourism sites could be more detailed. Rabina said Misezhnikov was pleased that many Israelis chose to spend their Pessah holiday in Israel this year instead of going abroad. However, incoming tourism to Israel, as of February 2009, has decreased by 24 percent since last year, according to the Tourism Ministry figures. Due to the budget deliberations, Rabina said it was too early to tell on whether the marketing budget for Israel will increase by the NIS 150 million the ministry has requested. However, Eli Gonen, president of the Israel Hotel Association, expressed confidence in Misezhnikov's abilities. "He is strong enough and he understands enough to get the money," said Gonen. Jacob Sudri, general manager and CEO of Africa Israel Hotels Ltd, said that the new tourism minister gave him hope that the tourism industry was headed in the right direction. AP contributed to this report