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Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog yesterday asked for a NIS 350 million budget increase in 2007, the overwhelming portion of which would be allocated to public relations, which he feels are crucial to the sector.

"The tourism industry is in a deep crisis following the Lebanon war," Herzog told the Knesset Finance Committee. "

The sector is slowly emerging from the crisis, but a great deal of work needs to be done to succeed in the task. About 100,000 families earn their livelihood from tourism throughout the country; 40,000 jobs are created for every million tourists who visit, leading to revenues of $2 billion. This is a huge economic lever."

Herzog added that Israel earns nine shekels on every shekel spent in tourism.

"Barriers in perception about Israel must be broken down," he said.

"Israel's image overseas is that of an isolated fortress, surrounded by barbed wire, fundamentalist and provincial. It is the ministry's job to show that this image is incorrect, and that Israel is a modern country."

The ministry's public relations efforts seem promising so far, even without the extra funding.

Following a recent visit to Paris, senior ministry officials say that they have extracted promises from the top management at both Carlson Wagonlit and Thomas Cook, the world's leading package tour companies, to include Israel in their lists of potential tourist destinations.

But private business in the tourism sector is not waiting around for government funding. As the ministry lobbied for further budgeting, a delegation of senior representatives from Brussels Airlines met with El Al management here last week.

The sides discussed further developing travel between the two countries, with the intent of making Brussels a more attractive hub for flights to European destinations such as Scandinavia or to Africa.

The discussions were followed by meetings at the airline in Brussels that focused on plans to develop the untapped Belgian tourist market.