Interior Minister Meir Sheetrit officially signed into effect on Monday a visa-waiver agreement reached between Israel and Russia last year. According to the agreement, Israelis and Russians traveling between Russia and Israel will no longer require visas to do so. The change to Israeli visa regulations and a complimentary change in Russian requirements will take effect in three months.
The implementation of the visa waiver will complete a process started in August 2007, when a government committee voted to unilaterally lift visa requirements for visiting Russian tourists. Full cabinet approval of the decision, however, was contingent upon Russia enacting a reciprocal policy.
"I am pleased that I had the privilege to take this important step, which will allow a large sector of the public to visit Russia without having to obtain a visa. I hope that now Russian tourism to Israel will indeed increase significantly," Minister Sheetrit commented.
Travel industry analysts suggest that up to 300,000 Russian tourists will visit Israel every year once the visa waiver goes into effect. Backers of the move, such as Tourism Minister Yitzchak Aharonovitch, claimed that an increase in Russian tourism will create "thousands of jobs" and increase national revenue.
The dropping of visa requirements will increase the ease of family visits from the "old country." It will also facilitate trips to Russia by those Israeli Jews looking into their family roots in Europe.
Some Russian pundits expressed concern over Israeli intelligence agencies taking advantage of the visa waiver to infiltrate Russia. On the Israeli side, some officials said that the waiver will undermine Israel's fight against trafficking in prostitutes, which has been underway for years.
Israel is now home to approximately one million immigrants born in Russia and the countries of the former Soviet Union. In 2005, officials of the Immigration Police estimated that another 70,000 relatives of Israeli citizens were living in Israel illegally.
The visa waiver agreement between Russia and Israel is being implemented against the backdrop of a fierce squabble between Russia and the European Union over travel regulations. In April, EU officials complained to Russia that visa requirements for Europeans are "very cumbersome and difficult to comply with." Russia had previously accused several EU countries of failing to comply with the terms of an agreement reached last year to streamline visa procedures for Russians visiting the EU.