14th October, 2010
Twenty-eight thousand Nigerian pilgrims scheduled to arrive in Israel next month may be the victims of an order by the Israeli Transportation Ministryâ€™s security department barring the country’s national carrier from flying to Abuja for fear of terrorist threats.
According to Rafi Ben Hur, a senior deputy director-general at the Tourism Ministry, the pilgrims were scheduled to fly on El Al chartered planes leased to a local airline in a series of flights between November to January.
The planes, El Alâ€™s Boeing 747-400, were to be leased to Nigeria Airways, but operated by El Alâ€™s crew and cabin staff.
As a safety precaution, the airlineâ€™s logo and symbols were to be removed.
â€œThe massive pilgrimage is a state project in Nigeria. They subsidize the Christianâ€™s pilgrimage to the Holy Land, just as they do the Muslimsâ€™ pilgrimage to Mecca. We cooperate with the Nigerian government on all tourism related issues and attempt to remove all the obstacles they encounter,â€ said Ben Hur.
â€œThe Transportation Ministry wonâ€™t let any Israeli airline fly to Nigeria, so the solution will probably have to be based on foreign airlines. The biggest looser in this case is El Al, which was forced to give up on a large amount of passengers.â€
Ben Hur was optimistic that a solution would be found and that the thousands of tourists would make it to Israel.
â€œWe are meeting with the Nigerian ambassador this evening and with the organizing team on Sunday. Iâ€™m sure we will be able to work out a solution. We do not plan to give up on these groups, their visits mean too much for us,â€ said Ben Hur.
According to Ben Hur, the Nigerian pilgrimages have been taking place since the beginning of the decade and the number of people continuously grows every year.
â€œWe owe a great appreciation to the Nigerians. They were the only tourists that arrived in Israel in our hardest times, during the second intifada. When everyone else stayed away, they continued to arrive and filled up our empty hotels,â€ said Ben Hur.
â€œEven today, when tourism numbers are back up, they help us out during the quietest time of the year.
â€œTwenty-eight thousand people visiting Israel for 10 days contribute a great deal to the tourism industry and the national economy by staying in hotels, dining in restaurants, renting buses and hiring tour guides. They are also the nicest visitors we could ask for,â€ he said.
Ben Hur added that he hoped the Tourism Ministry could intervene on the pilgrimsâ€™ behalf before the Transportation Ministry, but said he honored its position and wouldnâ€™t compromise security.
â€œIt would be a shame if they canâ€™t fly directly to Israel. Any stopover reduces the length of their stay here and too many logistics may reduce the number of arrivals,â€ said Ben Hur.
In March 2009, Israir brought about 15,000 pilgrims from Nigeria to Israel in an airlift operation involving some 60 flights that lasted more than two months.
Both El Al and the Transportation Ministry declined to comment on the issue.
â€”Reported by Jerusaslem Post online