Israeli delegation promotes Russian tourism

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MOSCOW, April 2 (JTA) — Israeli officials are hoping to encourage more Russian tourists to visit the Jewish state.

With tourism dropping some 45 percent since Palestinian violence erupted last September, a group of Israelis, led by Tourism Minister Rehavam Ze’evi, visited the Russian capital last week to participate in Moscow’s International Travel and Tourism Exposition.

While the officials sounded the drumbeat about tourism to Israel, their message did not target Russian Jews — but rather group tours, particularly those bringing Russian Orthodox pilgrims to the Holy Land.

Russian Jews who visit Israel tend to stay with friends and relatives who have made aliyah, Pinni Milo, an aide to Ze’evi, told JTA.

Pilgrims, on the other hand — though not very well off by Western standards — are numerous and represent a vast untapped market.

One such pilgrim is Katya, a 23-year-old student in Moscow.

Katya plans to visit Christian holy sites in Israel soon — though she is afraid of Palestinian terrorists, whom she compares to Chechen terrorists who have set off bombs in Moscow.

As far as she is concerned, Israel “should just drive all of them out. There is no other way to deal with them.”

Such sentiments would endear her to Ze’evi, a right-wing politician who at one time advocated the “transfer” of Arabs from areas under Israeli control to neighboring Arab countries.

Ze’evi took his hardline message on the road with him, telling a Moscow news conference that he felt Israel had erred in handing over portions of the West Bank and Gaza Strip to Palestinian control.

One of his goals as tourism minister would be to provide every tourist with the opportunity to rent a car and drive to any place in the Holy Land, including Bethlehem — which, Ze’evi said, “was a mistake to give away to the Palestinians.”

Ze’evi added his hope that Israel would “somehow correct this mistake in the near future.”

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