Russian tourists in Tel Aviv
Russian tourists in Tel Aviv, May 2010 Photo by Motti Milrod
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If he had been asked three years ago, it's possible that Constantine, 38, of St. Petersburg, Russia and the owner of a renovation company, would have said he preferred to spend his vacation in Europe.

"We usually rent a car and take off," he said. Instead, however, he is on the Tel Aviv beach watching his wife, Irina, and his two little daughters play with a ball in the water, and raving about the climate in Israel. Later they will be going to the Dead Sea and Jerusalem with a guide "to see the holy sites."

Constantine is sporting a crucifix around his neck, but is wearing a camouflage-colored hat emblazoned with a small insignia of the Israel Defense Forces to which he had tied a black-and-orange striped ribbon. "It's the symbol of St. George," he explained in halting but clear English. "On May 9 in Russia, we celebrate the Russian army's victory over the Nazis and St. George is the patron saint of the armed forces."

The May 1 workers' holiday and the May 9 holiday provide Russians with a block of vacation days. ("In between there are a few work days, but everyone skips them," Constantine says with a smile. )

Constantine and his family are part of a new trend in foreign tourism to Israel since 2008, and Russia is now second only to the United States as a source of foreign tourism. In 2006, 73,500 Russians visited Israel, according to the Tourism Ministry. In 2009, the figure was up to 400,000, and in the first three months of this year, 114,000 Russian tourists had already visited the country, twice the rate for the same period in 2009.

The Russian interest in Israel didn't arise from nowhere. In 2008, the government decided to scrap the requirement that Russian tourists secure visas in advance of their arrival. At the same time, the Tourism Ministry launched a massive advertising campaign in Russia on the Internet, in the print media and on television. "The advertising is primarily targeted at Moscow and St. Petersburg," said ministry spokeswoman Shira Kaveh, "but is also directed to other regions of Russia, such as Kaliningrad and Yekaterinburg."

The promotional efforts will continue this year. "In April [of this year], the ministry began the spring-summer season advertising campaign in Russia, at a cost of NIS 9 million," Kaveh said.

Constantine's good feelings about being in Israel are also reflected in the ministry's statistical data, which shows that Russian tourists' satisfaction with Israel is higher than average compared with other foreign tourists. "The Russian tourist finds a product here that suits his needs, because of the large population of Russian speakers [here], the good weather, the relatively short distance between Israel and Russia and the lack of a visa requirement," Kaveh noted.

Not far from Constantine, Irina and the two girls were stretched out on lounge chairs. Near them were Maria and Christina, a mother-in-law and daughter-in-law - two more examples of the satisfaction of Russian tourists that the Tourism Ministry has been reporting. "I love being here," Maria exclaimed. "People are so nice."

Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov (Yisrael Beiteinu ) told Haaretz: "The growth in tourism from Russia, which has exposed many Russians to Israel, its sites, its culture and its people, has contributed greatly to improving Israel's image and boosting diplomatic relations between the two countries."