The rift between the Transportation Ministry and the Finance-Tourism ministries alliance on how to advance Israel's aviation policy one again reared its ugly head this week. Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz convened a committee to explore the open-skies issue and to provide him with recommendations on how best to present it to the cabinet for implementation. After Mofaz invited representatives of the private sector, Tourism Ministry Director-General Nahum Itzkovich and Finance Ministry budget chief Koby Haber to join the panel, the latter gave the first meeting a skip by saying the decision to liberalize Israel's skies had already been taken in August 2005 and there was therefore no point to the committee. In the 2005 decision, the cabinet decided to encourage competition in the aviation market to and from Israel, the Treasury pointed out. The government also established a task force to look into the issue and concluded that each request by foreign airlines to add capacity or new routes would be discussed by the panel and decided on by the Transportation Ministry in close consultation with its tourism counterpart. Much has changed since then, however. Firstly, that task force never met. Secondly, Israeli skies did open as foreign carriers increased capacity by some 20 percent at the start of the summer and new players entered key markets, for example Israir flying to New York and Delta Airlines operating direct flights to Atlanta, not to mention the addition of various charter airlines. Thirdly, El Al is not exactly flying high this year as it contends with the added competition, rising fuel prices and a war that near-crippled the local tourism industry, all contributing to increasing losses at the company. Some suspect it may well have been the Transportation Ministry's intention, in forming the new committee, to send El Al the reassuring message that it is not entirely alone and that the government will give greater consideration to its woes from now on. El Al, having praised the move, may not expect too much from the committee, however, as Finance Minister Avraham Hirchson continues to exert his influence to continue the open skies momentum he started when he was tourism minister. His intentions became quite clear when the Treasury declined the invitation to join the committee. Itzkovich, of the tourism industry, was more diplomatic. "If the committee's aim is to prolong the process over a number of months, we are not interested," he told The Jerusalem Post. "If they intend to make real strides in the liberalization of the skies, then we will join." At the same time, Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog called for immediate negotiations to achieve a bilateral aviation agreement with the European Union, which, in its most liberal form (as is in place with the US and Britain) would allow the European carriers to determine their own capacities as demand dictates. Such an extreme outcome seems unlikely for now, though, with the Civil Aviation Authority, a Transportation Ministry body, responsible for such negotiations and as the final routing decisions remain in Mofaz's hands. Tourism budget okayed Meanwhile, in its quest to bring more tourists to the country, the Tourism Ministry said it had significantly advanced its three central activities during the budget 2007 discussions. The budget grants the ministry NIS 90 million to spend on infrastructure, NIS 100m. for marketing activities, including the NIS 30m. already allocated to market tourism to the North, and an additional NIS 15m. for events dedicated to drawing tourists to the North. Another ad campaign for the North The Forum of Tourist Associations in the North has launched its own advertising campaign to bring tourists to the region. At a cost of around NIS 1m., the campaign will take shape in three stages: the run up to Rosh Hashana will emphasize vacations in the Galilee; advertisements from then until Succot will focus on events in the region; and the third stage, after Succot, will explore options for winter vacations in the Galilee. Hot summer in the Holy city While the North had a summer it would rather soon forget, Jerusalem had the busiest it's seen in years. The Jerusalem Municipality Tourism Authority estimated that approximately 800,000 people visited the city in July and August, a 40% rise compared to the parallel period last year. Jerusalem hotels had average occupancies of around 70% through the two months, it added. Some 50,000 residents of the North found refuge in the city during the war. 12,000 to dance in BG-Airport to Uman As all eyes fall on the next tourist peak season - the High Holidays, the Ukrainian city of Uman can expect another Israeli boost to its tourism infrastructure this Rosh Hashana. The Israel Airports Authority reported that some 12,000 people will fly to the city between September 18 and 22 to spend Rosh Hashana at the grave of Rabbi Nahman of Breslav. The annual pilgrimage has become a popular tradition amongst the followers of the Hassidic Breslav sect. Flying with football fever Niche markets seem to becoming the focus of tour operators, and building on the success of selling packages for the World Cup in Germany, travel company Tzabar is promoting more football packages for the coming season. For $1,017 fans can see Israel take on Russia in the European championship qualifier, including a return flight to Moscow on October 4 and four nights' hotel accommodation. The company is also offering deals to London and Spain to see local league games there. For example, tickets to see Tottenham Hotspur against West Ham will cost 515 per person including a return ticket to London (flight leaving October 26) and three nights tourist class accommodation. Other deals can be seen on www.tzabar.co.il.