Israel's Tourism Minister Sees Brighter Days Ahead

By Michael Milligan

GLASGOW, Scotland -- Despite severe setbacks in the Middle East peace process, Moshe Katsav, Israel's deputy minister of tourism, said they so far have not hurt the country's tourism industry.

Although tourism officials did not quote exact figures during an ASTA conference luncheon here, they said that more than 2 million people traditionally visit Israel each year. Figures from late August released by Israel's tourism office in New York reported a 20% decline in arrivals compared with numbers from two summers ago. Katsav said Israel hopes to see a significant boost in its visitor numbers after the country kicks off a yearlong celebration commemorating its 50th anniversary. The celebration begins Dec. 23.

Speaking at the ASTA event, Katsav said Israel is disturbed by Palestinian leader Yasir Arafat's recent public meeting with Hamas, the militant group that has claimed responsibility for recent terrorist attacks in Israel. "It is a very good indication that Yasir Arafat is not serious about his commitment [to peace]," Katsav said. "But I am optimistic."

Katsav said the peace process is on a irreversible course that began nearly 20 years ago when Egypt and Israel signed a peace accord. The process since has continued with a similar agreement forged with the Jordanians. He anticipates a peace accord eventually will be reached with the Palestinians.

"After so many years of bloodshed and war, we have all suffered losses, and we are tired. So we have to end this conflict," he said.

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