Jerusalem: With Indians emerging as the largest group visiting the Jewish state, Israel is mulling easing visa restrictions in a bid to double the numbers of visitors from India.
The Jewish state is opening a tourist office in Mumbai and is investing about USD 660,000 to attract more visitors from India that has emerged as Israel's single largest source of incoming tourists in the continent, overtaking South Korea.
Israel's Tourism Minister, Stas Misezhnikov signed a bilateral agreement with his visiting Indian counterpart Subodh Kant Sahai, aiming at doubling the number of tourists between the two countries in the next three years.
"We are opening an office of the Ministry of Tourism in Mumbai which shows that we give a lot of significance to our relationship with India," Misezhnikov said addressing a joint press conference with Sahai.
"The potential for enhancing co-operation in the tourism is very good. Now tourist inflow to India from Israel and tourist outflow from India to Israel is equal," he said, adding about 50,000 Israelis go to India every year and the same number of Indians visit Israel.
"We want to double this number in three years through mutual cooperation."
Sahai said the two countries have agreed on cooperation in many areas that would help "draw the road map" for promoting tourism in India as well as in Israel.
"We have decided to have a tourism development forum with representation from all stakeholders, including travel agents, hoteliers and tour operators and even friends from the media, who can give advice as to how to promote tourism," he said.
Outlining the vast opportunity presented by India in the tourism sector, Sahai said "India needs convention centres, exhibition centres and more than 200,000 hotel rooms."
He also pointed out steps taken by the government to boost investment in the tourism sector by allowing 100 percent foreign direct investment and declaring it as an infrastructure category sector, which will further enhance bank loan facilities for willing participants in the sector.
Sahai, who is on a four-day visit to Israel along with a delegation of state ministers, Members of Parliament and senior central and state government officers, also emphasised on the fast growing outbound travel from India.
"Average Indian has now become a great traveler. 80 percent of Indians are economically ready to match any place in the world. Our outbound tourism has increased four times and Israel is one of the prime destinations, given heritage linkages," he emphasised.
The two ministers also agreed upon the need to strengthen connectivity between the two countries by introducing new direct flights that can accommodate travelers seven days a week.
Currently Israeli carrier, El Al, flies between Tel Aviv and Mumbai thrice a week.
Misezhnikov noted that the way to achieve this, among others, was to open additional flights to destinations within India beyond Mumbai, such as Delhi, Kolkata and Goa.
The two ministers expressed their intentions to work with private airlines, each one in their country, in order to promote charter flights between the two countries.
Sahai said that he would raise the issue during his discussions with Israeli Transport Minister, Yisrael Katz.
Emphasising India's seriousness in promoting the tourism sector, Sahai also noted that his country has adopted the G-20 declaration which says that "tourism industry is a central economic engine for growth" which reduces poverty by employment generation.
"India understands that tourism increases the rate of employment among the working classes, women and people living in the periphery," he said.
Meanwhile, the Joint Working Group on tourism between India and Israel have met here to discuss ways to achieve the goals set by the two ministers.
The Indian side in the discussions was led by Anand Kumar, Joint Secretary at the Ministry of Tourism while the Israeli side was led by Oren drori, Head of Marketing Administration at the Israeli tourism ministry.
Sahai would Monday participate in a special seminar for Israeli tour operators during the Incredible India roadshow in Tel Aviv.