Amid regional turmoil, Israel courts Russian tourists
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu - REUTERS
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JERUSALEM: Israel is launching a campaign to lure Russian tourists, marketing the country as an alternative to Turkey and Egypt even as it grapples with its own wave of violence, Israeli tourism officials said Thursday.

The campaign was prompted in part by the recent bombing of a Russian airliner over Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and Turkey’s downing of a Russian warplane that it claimed strayed into Turkish airspace.

Russia has responded by suspending flights to and from Egypt and imposing sanctions on Turkey that include a ban on the sales of tour packages. Both countries normally attract several million Russian tourists each year, creating new opportunities for Israeli tour operators.

Israel’s tourism minister, Yariv Levin, said his country is offering two types of trips to Russians — a Sinai-like “sea and sun” vacation in the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, which borders the Egyptian peninsula, and packages that include stops in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and at the Dead Sea.

“We hope to see an influx going even in the next (few) weeks,” he said.

He said the Israeli campaign includes traditional advertising, partnerships with Russian tour operators and bringing Russian celebrities to Israel to “spread the word.” He said the campaign would focus on Israel’s mild weather, its religious and historical sites as well as beaches and night life, and the large number of Russian-speaking immigrants from the former Soviet Union.

“Russian tourists in Israel really feel at home and can ask and talk and receive information in Russian without any problem,” he said.

Israel, of course, faces its own challenges in attracting tourists. The country has been embroiled in a two-month bout of violence characterized by Palestinian stabbings and car attacks, along with deadly shootings of many of the alleged assailants and clashes in the West Bank.

Levin said that despite the violence, Israel is “one of the safest places in the world for tourists.”

He pointed to Israel’s low crime rate, and cited Paris terror attacks and Wednesday’s California shooting massacre as examples of famous tourist destinations that have not escaped large-scale attacks.

The Israeli campaign will likely rile Egypt, one of Israel’s few allies in the Arab world, and which depends heavily on tourism.

“They are exploiting the situation,” Khaled Fouda, the governor of Egypt’s South Sinai region, said in a recent TV interview, referring to the Israelis.

Levin rejected such suggestions, saying the Israeli campaign was likely to attract only a small percentage of the 3 million Russians who visit Sinai each year. He also said the campaign could also help revive tourism across the region.

Ilanit Melchior, tourism director at the Jerusalem Development Authority, said an estimated 450,000 Russian tourists visit Israel each year, and she hopes the campaign could grow that figure by 10 percent.

She said Jerusalem would appeal to Russians who normally go to Turkey for its history and Christian holy sites. The close proximity to Tel Aviv and the Dead Sea, both roughly an hour away, would allow packages to include cultural offerings, the Mediterranean and health spas.

“When one place is in crisis, sometimes it can open a new door for us,” she said.

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