Wanted: Asians, sunbathing Scandinavians, Russians without visas

Aharonovich flies to South Korea and Japan in hope of encouraging visitors to Israel from East Asia.

beach umbrella 298.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
beach umbrella 298.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Tourism Minister Yitzhak Aharonovich flew to South Korea and Japan last week with the general director of his office, Shaul Zemach. It's a trip the two are hoping to encourage - in reverse, of course - among millions of potential visitors to Israel from East Asia, a region expected to produce a quarter of the world's international travelers by 2020. The agenda for Aharonovich and Zemach's trip included meetings with tourism industry officials in the two countries, as well as discussions about setting up a new office in the region to represent Israel as a tourism destination. The pair also met with South Korean officials to promote the renewal of non-stop flights between Seoul and Tel Aviv. In a statement before his trip, Aharonovich touted East Asia's "huge potential" as a supplier of tourists to Israel, noting the region's rapid economic growth and large Christian population. Aharonovich and his deputy were scheduled to appear at a conference of evangelical Christians in Seoul, which was to include representatives of the movement from a number of other countries in the region. Israel is expected to draw between 90,000 and 100,000 visitors from East Asia this year, more than half of them South Korean Christians and one-third from China, India and Japan. Tourism Ministry officials believe large Christian populations in Singapore, the Philippines and Taiwan make them particularly potent potential sources of tourism to Israel. Tourism Ministry prepares Eilat 'emergency plan' Back at home, Aharonovich and Zemach are readying what the Tourism Ministry is billing as an "emergency plan" to boost tourism to Eilat. According to the plan, the city will become the subject of an NIS 20 million marketing effort, which would kick off in Europe in September and last through the coming winter. The aim of the campaign is to return European tourists to Eilat, particularly those from Scandinavia, who in past decades made the beachfront city a respite from freezing winter weather farther north. Already damaged by the development of cheaper alternatives in Aqaba, Sinai and Turkey, traffic to Eilat took a heavy blow with the start of the second intifada, and European travelers have yet to come back. As part of the ministry's proposal, the marketing effort will be combined with the addition of two or three weekly charter flights to Eilat, which tourism officials estimate would add 10,000 visits to the city this winter. The ministry will present the completed plan to the Finance Ministry in the coming weeks. Another call to cancel Russian visa requirement The Tourism Ministry has found support from a likely source - the Incoming Tour Operator Association - in its ongoing efforts to cancel the visa requirement for visitors arriving in Israel from Russia. The ITOA issued its own press release last week calling on the Foreign, Justice and Public Security Ministries to back the Tourism Ministry's latest proposal on the issue, which seeks to increase Israel's share of the four million former Soviets traveling to the Middle East each year. (In contrast to Turkey, which receives two million visits, and Egypt, which enjoys one million, Israel receives 100,000.) Citing statistics similar to those of the Tourism Ministry, the ITOA said that as many as 200,000 additional tourists could start arriving from Russia annually by as early as 2009 should the visa requirement be cancelled, adding an additional 8,000 jobs and $400 million to the national economy. Aharonovich has been pursuing the policy change since June but has ran into opposition from the Foreign and Public Security Ministries, which claim that loosening restrictions on tourism from Russia would lead to increases in organized crime and trafficking in women in Israel. The cabinet created a committee headed by Aharonovich last month to revisit the issue, with results of the discussions expected in the coming weeks. El Al plans to inaugurate 'Kiryat Shmona' Senior El Al officials traveled to Kiryat Shmona last week to meet with the mayor and invite 10 of the town's young people to Los Angeles, where the airline's newest acquisition, a Boeing 777 valued at $125 million, will take off on its maiden voyage to Israel at the end of this month. The new aircraft, to be called the Kiryat Shmona, joins members of the El Al fleet named for Tiberias and Jerusalem. Another 777, the Sderot, was added to the company's fleet last month, with 10 students from that town participating in the plane's first flight from New York to Tel Aviv. President Shimon Peres, visiting Kiryat Shmona the same day as El Al's representatives, took part in the meeting with Mayor Haim Barbivai and voiced support for El Al's announcement that it is considering the start of service to the northern border community. Air Canada takes top spot for second time For the second time in three years, travelers have named Air Canada the best North American carrier. The airline has again topped the annual poll conducted by Skytrax, an independent British firm that surveyed more than 14 million passengers in naming Air Canada the continent's top airline. The company's Tel Aviv office will no doubt do its best to convert those results into increased ticket sales. In contrast to most foreign airlines serving Ben-Gurion Airport, Air Canada experienced a drop in traffic in the first part of the current season.