REUTERS - Israel is looking east to China and India to help drive tourism, as visits to the country have yet to fully recover from the 2014 Gaza war, Tourism Ministry Director-General Amir Halevi said.
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In 2015, tourism grew 43 percent from China to some 50,000 visitors and the ministry sees that doubling by 2018. It will be helped by the start of nonstop flights next month by Hainan Airlines from Beijing to Tel Aviv that will add 35,000 extra seats to Israel a year.
"This will change the game," Halevi told Reuters. "The price of tickets will go down 50 percent."
Tourism in 2015 fell 3 percent to 3.1 million, following a war with Palestinian militants in Gaza in 2014. A weak Russian economy also weighed.
In the six-week Gaza conflict, Israeli air strikes killed more than 2,100 Palestinians, mostly civilians, while Palestinian militants killed six Israeli civilians and 67 soldiers.
The fighting briefly shut down Israel's main airport near Tel Aviv as a missile from Gaza fell nearby, while scenes of rockets fired into Israel and forcing Israelis into shelters led to many tourists cancelling plans.
Halevi played down the impact on tourism of Palestinian stabbing attacks in the last five months. Palestinians have killed 28 Israelis and two U.S. citizens in knife, car-ramming or gun assaults. At least 190 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces.
"For almost 70 years, we have been trying to manage tourism with things happening from time to time," Halevi said, pointing to a global trend of violence.
Tourism is a key growth engine for Israel, accounting for 2.5 percent of gross domestic product. It contributes over 40 billion shekels ($11 billion) into the economy yearly with about 200,000 employees, or 3 percent of Israel's workforce.
The United States is Israel's largest tourist market at 20 percent, followed by Russia, France, Germany and Britain.
Push into India
Israel and China this week agreed to a 10-year multiple visa deal, with Israel becoming the third country after the United States and Canada to have this arrangement with China.
Halevi said Chinese interest in Israel is growing. In this month's Jerusalem Marathon, there were 170 people from China - up from 6 last year.
Flag carrier El Al already flies nonstop to China.
Outgoing tourism from China is expected to reach 200 million by 2020.
In 2016, Israel will also make a push into India, whose tourism to Israel rose 13 percent last year to nearly 40,000. The ministry targets 80,000-100,000 in 2018.
Indian carriers have expressed the desire to fly to Israel and Halevi said if tourism keep rising, there will be at least one in addition to El Al.
High cost of flights and hotels also discourage tourism but Halevi said the ministry was seeking international chains to build low-cost hotels.
He believes a convention center and casino is needed in the Red Sea resort city of Eilat to bring in tourists, although a plan for a casino has met with political resistance.