Tourism Ministers Plan a Middle Eastern `riviera’

Imagine a “Riviera” stretching from the Jordanian port city of Aqaba through Eilat in Israel to Taba and Sharm el Sheik in Egypt.

Or a special trip for sailing enthusiasts and windsurfers, who could bob up and down on the Red Sea, gliding unhindered along the Jordanian, Israeli and Egyptian borders.

These are just some of the projects in the works, according to the tourism ministers of Israel, Jordan and Egypt, who convened here this week for their first joint news conference.

The three talked to reporters Monday at the International Tourism Boerse, the world’s largest trade fair for the tourism industry.

Elias Freji, the official in charge of tourism and antiquities for the Palestinian Authority, was invited to the fair, but could not attend due to illness.

Amid laud applause and broad smiles, the three tourism ministers spoke of the political progress made in the region, which they said has opened the way for tour operators to offer excursions across newly opened borders.

The ministers said they view increased tourism as a key toward strengthening political and economic ties among the three countries and as an important economic factor for growth in the region.

Israeli Tourism Minister Uzi Baram, who expressed optimism that Israel will sign a peace accord with Lebanon and Syria, predicted that next year, the news conference would involve the tourism ministers from those two countries as well.

“Israelis will travel heavily” to Lebanon and Syria “as soon as they can,” he said.

“Multidestination tourism stands to benefit from a just and lasting peace,” added Jordanian Tourism Abdel-Elah Khatib.

He noted that a six-day tour package from the United States is already being offered in which travelers can book the journey via both EI Al and Royal Jordanian Airlines.

Both Baram and the Egyptian Tourist Minister Mamdouh El Beltagui praised the Riviera project, which they said is still in the working stages.

The project, they said, involves developing a promenade for pedestrians and cyclists that will be replete with restaurants,cafes and shops.

Beltagui said Egypt has much to gain from improved tourism because it has more coastline than the two other nations.

But he said Egypt is first investing in improvements for a coastal airport so it can handle large aircraft.

While voicing their hopes for the future, the ministers also presented the news conference with 1994 tourism statistics for their respective countries.

Baram said Israel had 2.1 million visitors in 1994, an 11 percent increase over 1993 and a new record for the number of tourists visiting the country.

He said there were 492,000 American visitors last year, a 5 percent increase over 1993.

Among Europe’s 1.1 million visitors to Israel in 1994, he said, the 197,000 travelers from the United Kingdom comprised the largest group, closely followed by 196,000 Germans.

Baram added that Israel is also a strong tourism exporter, with more than 1 million Israelis traveling abroad each year out of a total population of some 5 million.

Jordan’s Khatib said that in his country, where border crossings with Israel were opened last fall, overall tourism was up 10 percent.

He said there was a 27 percent increase in European tourists, with the number of Germans visiting Jordan up by 36 percent over 1993.

Khatib added that his country hopes to have a 100 percent increase this year in the number of tourists from Europe and America.

In the popular Jordanian tourist destination of Petra, Khatib noted, tourist capacity grew by 250 beds last year, and four additional hotels are expected to be completed this year.

Egypt has reportedly suffered an overall drop in tourism because of the violent activities of some of the country’s fundamentalist movements. But Beltagui said there were 213,214 Israeli tourists visiting Egypt last year, a 72 percent increase over 1993.

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