Israel tourist numbers rise 32 percent in 2008

Sun Jan 18, 2009 12:01pm EST
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JERUSALEM (Reuters) - A record 3.03 million people visited Israel in 2008, up 32 percent from 2007, the country's Tourism Ministry said on Sunday.

The tourism industry contributed some 40 billion shekels ($10.4 billion) and 160,000 jobs to Israel's economy, the ministry said, publishing data collated before Israel's offensive in the Gaza Strip gathered pace.

It is still unclear whether tourism has been hurt by a three-week conflict between Israel and Hamas militants, which was halted by a ceasfire on Sunday.

Tourism numbers had risen in recent years in tandem with an easing of tensions between Israel and the Palestinians, leading to a drop in the number of suicide bombings and other attacks on Israeli targets.

"The tourism industry represents one of the most important growth engines in the Israeli economy," said Tourism Minister Ruhama Avraham-Balila in a statement.

She noted that she plans to request more state spending on overseas tourism marketing budgets to "successfully confront tough competition arising from the global economic crisis and return confidence in Israel as a safe tourism destination, following the campaign in Gaza."

The largest number of tourists last year came from the United States at 617,000, a record level. Some 356,000 entered from Russia for an 84 percent jump. Tourism from Germany rose 40 percent.

($1 = 3.86 shekels)

(Reporting by Steven Scheer; editing by John Stonestreet)