The Tourism Ministry has invited the 33 Chilean miners, who survived underground for 68 days, to visit Israel for the Christian holidays and give thanks for their rescue. The ministry offered to pay for their flights, room and board and touring for a week.
Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov sent a written invitation to the miners, whose dramatic rescue earlier this month was televised around the world. He invited their wives as well for "a spiritual journey" to include sightseeing tours of Christian holy sites.
"Your bravery and strength of spirit, your great faith that helped you survive so long in the bowels of the earth, was an inspiration to us,” Misezhnikov wrote. "It would be a great honor for us to welcome you as our guests in the Holy Land. This December, Christians around the world…will celebrate Christmas. During that time, we welcome tens of thousands of pilgrims and we would be pleased to offer you this uplifting and extraordinary experience, as our guests."
The ministry has invested millions of dollars the past two years, and a record number of tourists, especially from the former Soviet Bloc, have come to the country. Pilgrimage represents one third of incoming tourism to Israel annually. In 2008, Israel's record year, 62 percent of the 3 million tourists who visited Israel were Christian.
A new Moscow-Eilat airline route is expected to bring approximately 10,000 Russians to Israel’s southernmost city by May. "The cancellation of the visa requirement removed a bureaucratic obstacle and transformed Israel into a nearby, attractive and accessible travel destination,” according to Minister Misezhnikov.
In all of 2009, 400,000 tourists visited Israel from Russia. 378,500 tourists have visited in the period January-September 2010, an increase of 45 percent over the same period last year.
Israel also is boosting tourism from Georgia and signed a bilateral agreement with it on Tuesday. The ministry is trying to cancel the visa requirement for tourists from the country, similar to the cancellation of the requirement for Ukrainians.