JERUSALEM - Israel and the Palestinian Authority plan to jointly market their region as a pilgrimage destination, Israel's Ministry of Tourism announced Sunday (Dec. 26).

Israeli Tourism Ministry Director General Eli Cohen and his Palestinian counterpart, Dr. Bajis Ismail, agreed on the plan during a meeting in early December.

The campaign, which will initially cost $500,000, will target Greece, Poland, the Czech Republic and Hungary.

In a sign that relations between Israel and the Palestinians are improving, the two sides have agreed to place the symbols of both ministries on advertisements promoting tourism to the Holy Land.
In another encouraging development, Israeli Tourism Minister Gideon Ezra met with Palestinian Tourism and Antiquities Minister Mitri Abu Aita near Bethlehem last week to discuss this and other joint ventures.

Both Israelis and Palestinians have suffered from the virtual collapse in their intertwined tourism industries that resulted from the violent Palestinian uprising more than four years ago.

Despite a significant increase in the number of tourists to Israel in 2004, only 13,000 pilgrims, including 4,700 Israeli-Arab Christians, visited Bethlehem during Christmas. Thousands of Christian and Muslim Palestinians have emigrated from the region in recent years, and many more say they will do so if the economy does not improve significantly.

In the first 11 months of 2004, 1.3 million tourists entered Israel, 44 percent more than during the same period last year. Israel Tourism Ministry officials predict approximately 1.7 million visitors will arrive in 2005.

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