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Analysis & Opinion
24.09.08 Opening The Floodgate
By Roland Oliphant

If there is one country outside the CIS that has a close human relationship with Russia, it is Israel. Only the United States has a larger Russian population, and as a proportion of the population (almost 15 percent), the Russian Diaspora in Israel is probably the largest. So the visa waiver agreement that came into force on Saturday, which allows Russians and Israelis to visit Israel and Russia without a visa for stays of less than 90 days, provided they are not going to study or work, is in some ways long overdue.

But although the move is welcomed by the many Israelis and Russians who have relatives in either country, it is not simply meant to make these people’s lives easier. “The aim of the agreement,” as Ygal Tsati, director of Consular services at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs, bluntly put it, “is to increase the number of Russian tourists coming to Israel.”

Indeed, the initiative for the deal came from Israel’s former Minister of Tourism Yitzhak Ahronovitch, who is so evangelist about it that he told RIA Novosti earlier this year that “if Russia is not ready for mutual visa waving, we’ll lift visas for Russian tourists unilaterally.”

With Russian immigrants accounting for some one million of Israel’s seven million citizens, Russia and other former Soviet states are especially important for the country’s travel industry. The deal with Russia, in fact, is only one of several Ahronovitch has pushed for with former Soviet states. A similar agreement with Bulgaria came into force in July, and negotiations are currently underway with Ukraine.

Russia is already Israel’s second largest source of tourism (after the United States), but the Israeli tourist industry has long felt that cumbersome travel restrictions were increasing costs and deterring many Russians from staying longer. Visitor numbers shot up after visa rules were simplified in 2007, and Israeli tour operators hope the visa waiver will see the number of Russian visitors double again, to as many as 300,000 a year.

Julia Azbel Newman, a Russian-speaking tour guide, is one Israeli who hopes to benefit from the new regime. “It was very difficult for my customers to get visas. Many used to come on one day trips because they did not need a visa for a visit of less than 24 hours. You have to spend a lot of time on the road, it’s just exhausting. Now we hope to see more people coming for longer periods of time.”

And it is not simply a question of turning day trippers into vacationers, but of changing the tourist demographic. Israeli tourism faces stiff competition on the Russian market from cheaper destinations like Egypt, Jordan and Turkey. Together with the expense of visa restrictions, it is generally only better-off Russians who can afford to holiday in Israel. The new agreement, says Azbel Newman, will hopefully change that demographic, bringing “people who do not necessarily use individual tour guides like me, but will also use tour companies.”

Not all Israelis, however, are so keen on the change. The Tourism Ministry pushed the deal through in the face of opposition from the Ministry of Public Security. Those concerns seem to have been found to have been allayed, but it is unclear whether this is because they have been adequately addressed or simply brushed aside.

Israeli officials have sought to alleviate security concerns while assuring potential Russian visitors that they will not be singled out for scrutiny. “The arrangement presupposes a certain black list of persons who are not welcome in Israel,” said Esther Efrat, a legal expert at the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs. “That is normal for any country.” Her colleague from the Consular Service, Pinhar Avivi, insisted that “questions asked of Russians at the border will be no different from those asked of any person at any airport in the world. And security requirements for passengers on El Al will be the same for everyone, including Russians.”

So the lifting of visa restrictions will not allow Russians to bypass Israel’s famously tight security measures, or its border guards’ notoriously intrusive questions. But no one really expected that they would, and the concerns voiced by the Public Security Ministry were more mundane: about crime, rather than terrorism.

One purpose of any visa regime, after all, is to deter the less savory kind of visitor – especially visitors that may become immigrants. The massive wave of immigration from the CIS and Russia following the fall of the Soviet Union brought its fair share of criminality, and perhaps most noticeably has turned it into a hub for human trafficking and the sex trade. The “Russian prostitute” has nearly come to epitomize the problems of immigration from the CIS. Even Abdel Newman, who welcomes the deal, admits she is “slightly cautious.”

Given such concerns, how free will the visa-free regime actually be? It seems unlikely that Russian citizens will simply be able to show up at Ben Gurion airport with their external passports. “As well as a passport, travelers will need a return ticket and a certain amount of money to sustain them during their stay,” said Tsati. Other sources add a hotel booking to the list. But there still seems to be a little confusion. “As far as we are aware, passengers will need an ordinary passport valid for no less than six months,” Konstantin Tyrkin, a Transaero spokesman, said. “We’re not aware of any other requirements.”

Undoubtedly, these details will be cleared up in due course, but in the meantime many may prefer the security guaranteed by having a visa rather than risk being turned away at the border. Transaero has not yet seen any change in the number of bookings for on its Moscow - Tel Aviv route, though Tyurkin said they were preparing for a significant increase. “We are introducing a Boeing 747 onto that route. With three flights daily, that will up capacity to almost 1,500 passengers.”

Quite what Russia stands to gain, other than a symbolic equality with the United States and Europe (U.S. and most European citizens are issued visas free of charge on arrival in Israel), is unclear. But few are anticipating an influx of Israeli tourists – or prostitutes.
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