A new controversy has arisen within the government as to whether or not Ukrainian tourists to Israel need entry visas. Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov (Yisrael Beiteinu), who suggested the move, claims that cancelling the visa requirement for Ukrainian tourists will triple the incoming tourism from the country. Therefore, asserted Misezhnikov, such a move is vital for the troubled tourism industry.
Interior Minister Eli Yishai (Shas) is vehemently opposed to the move. "Ukraine is the hub of prostitution and human trafficking," claimed the minister.
The discussion of the issue was initially planned to take place during Sunday's cabinet meeting. However, following pressure from the Shas chairman, the government secretariat decided to delay the discussion to next Sunday's meeting. Yet, at this point, it is unclear whether the ministers will be asked to vote on the issue given the intensifying controversy between the two sides. For the time being, Minister Yishai demanded that an inter-ministerial discussion be held on the issue prior to the ministers' vote.
The current controversy stems from a decision made by the previous government to cancel the visa agreement between Russia and Israel, thus nullifying the need for Russian tourists to obtain a visa in order to enter Israel. Proponents and opponents of the move waged an intense debate then, too, along precisely the same lines of argumentation.
The opponents claimed that cancelling the visa requirement for Russian tourists would result in increased crime and damage to the social fabric resulting from the integration of illegal aliens into Israeli society. However, ever since the decision was made in favor of cancellation in December 2008, no unusual reports about the affect of Russian tourists have been registers, not in the criminal realm and not in the economic realm.
On the other hand, the decision unequivocally resulted in a jump in tourism from Russia from 80,000 in 2008 to 400,000 in 2009. Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov decided to leverage this achievement into an additional visa cancellation for Ukrainian citizens. He estimated that such a decision will spur an increase in the number of incoming Ukrainian tourists -most of whom come to visit relatives or on Christian pilgrim tours – from 70,000 to 200,000 a year.
'All of Shas' concerns proved false'
Minister Yishai is determined to block the move. "When the debate was held on cancelling visas for Russian tourists," he said, "the Public Security Ministry warned that Ukraine and not Russia is the source of the problem with trafficking in women. Therefore, my opposition (to the move) is so adamant, especially during a time when we are fighting against growing crime, prostitution, and illegal foreign workers."
"The main concern is that cancelling visas from Ukraine will lead to an open market of people. Unfortunately, we learned about this issue by chance. This is why I am insisting on a thorough inter-ministerial discussion prior to placing the issue before the cabinet. Such a discussion has yet to take place. We are adamantly opposed to this move, both on matter of principle and on the level of the attempt to hijack the decision prior to a proper debate."
Minister Misezhnikov rejected his colleague's claims: "The considerations laid down by the interior ministry are unprofessional and are tainted with foreign interests. They are based on stereotypes and prejudices. The same warnings that he is making against Ukrainian tourists now were made by the interior minister during the discussion to cancel visa requirements from Russia. This move proved its effectiveness above and beyond all doubt, not just in the touristic realm, but also in the political realm, and resulted in improved relations with Moscow.
"Furthermore, all of Shas' claims were proven false regarding the increase in illegal foreign workers, prostitution, and other social problems," concluded Misezhnikov.