A tourism agreement signed here last week by Spain and Israel may open the way for broader cooperation between the two nations.
While the Israelis are anxious to receive more visitors from Spain, the Spaniards hope their pact with Israel will lead to a breakthrough in American tourism to their country.
At present, Spain attracts mainly European tourists, but relatively few Americans. Wealthy Jews from the United States would be most welcome visitors in Spain.
Cooperation with Israel in that field, plus Spain’s recent emphasis on its rich Jewish cultural heritage, are considered ideal ways to gain the good will of American Jews.
Officials here hope to end the isolation of Spain that has persisted in Jewish circles long after the end of Francisco Franco’s dictatorial regime. Madrid’s establishment of full diplomatic relations with Israel in 1986 was seen as the first step in that process.
Israel’s minister of tourism, Gideon Patt, just spent almost a week here, visiting Toledo and other sites of particular Jewish interest.
Patt had two days of meetings with Jose Barrionuevo, Spain’s minister of transportation, communications and tourism, and with the vice minister for tourism, Ignacio Fuejo.
They are busy planning for 1992, when Spain will observe for a full year the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World.
It is also the 500th year since the expulsion of Jews from Spain by King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella.
‘OUTSTANDING JEWISH ACHIEVEMENTS’
Spanish officials are speaking now of a "Reencuentra" — a new encounter between Spanish and Jewish cultures.
The officials who attended the talks with Patt view the commemoration as an excellent opportunity to build on the historic ties between Spaniards and Jews.
They said Spain hopes to attract Israeli and other Jewish visitors from all over the world to such places as Toledo, Granada and Seville, where Jews once made important contributions to science, medicine, culture and polities.
An official of the Tourism Ministry told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, "Not only are we aware of the outstanding Jewish achievements here, we have launched an ambitious program aimed at preserving and, if necessary, renovating buildings and monuments which remind us of our Jewish past."
A working group has been assigned to arrange tours of special interest to people who want to trace the sources of Sephardic culture.
Patt said he was deeply impressed by the sincere efforts the Spaniards are making to keep memories alive and, wherever possible, establish new contacts with Jewish groups.
He and his hosts agreed on the need to launch an information campaign.
Spanish tourism to Israel increased by 40 percent last year. But the numbers are lower than for other Western European countries.
One reason is that Spaniards do not regard Israel as a vacation land. Extensive media coverage of the Palestinian uprising has given the impression that it is dangerous to visit Israel.
Patt’s efforts to overcome that image were not made easier by the prominent media coverage given Silvia Martinez, a Spanish student from Barcelona who was injured in the bus disaster on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem highway July 6.
But in the long run, Spanish tourism to Israel may have a chance. Many visitors to date have been members of religious groups interested in the Holy Land.
Lately, Spanish scholars, intellectuals and others have come to Israel to discover the wide range of activities and events it offers.