Missions to Israel are a staple of Jewish organizations, but when Pepe Barreto leads a group tour there in August, it'll represent something new.
Barreto is perhaps the most popular drive-time host on Spanish-language radio in Los Angeles and a major player in a new drive to boost travel to Israel among California Latinos.
The campaign is a key part of a program outlined by Daniela Aharoni, the recently arrived director of the Israel Government Tourist Office for the Western United States. With Hispanics/Latinos making up nearly half the population of Los Angeles County and one-third of the state, this demographic will be of ever-growing importance in the years to come.
"We have found that Latinos are free-spending tourists, with a strong religious interest in the Holy Land," said Aharoni, sitting in her office with an expansive view of midtown Los Angeles.
Aharoni served previously as deputy director of the Israel tourist office here from 1994-98, and she has been amazed at the rising influence and economic status of Latinos during the intervening seven years.
While American Jews remain Aharoni's main clientele, she is also putting increased effort into attracting the Christian community.
"If we can convince the pastor of a church to go, his congregants will follow him," said Aharoni, who is now organizing specially tailored seminars and promotional material for pastors and ministers.
Next year, Aharoni plans to explore the possibility of increasing tourism from the large Korean community in Southern California.
Her jurisdiction includes 13 Western states, Alaska and Hawaii among them, and she acknowledged that it's tougher to sell Israel tourism in her territory than in the Northeast and Midwest.
"You have a much longer travel time to begin with, and Israeli sunshine isn't that much of a selling point to people in California or Arizona," she said.
After a near-disastrous slump in tourism to Israel during the past four years of the intifada, the statistics are beginning to look better. In 2000, the last "normal" year, a record-breaking 2.7 million tourists arrived in Israel. Two years later, the figure had plummeted to 206,000, rising to 379,000 for 2004.
The upswing is continuing, with figures in January and February of this year in the key North American market showing a 15 percent to 20 percent improvement over the same months last year. If the general Middle East situation doesn't worsen drastically, Israel expects a total of 1.7 million tourists in 2005, 1.9 million in 2006 and 2.1 million in 2007.
Despite the gloom of the intifada years, Israel has been busy improving its tourism infrastructure and added a host of new attractions, Aharoni said. Off the top of her head, she reeled off the Davidson Center and archaeological park near the Western Wall, a new Yad Vashem historical museum, Israel Park in Latrun, Palmach Museum in Tel Aviv and Begin Museum in Jerusalem. There's also easier access to Masada and new facilities and projects in Sefad, Tiberias, Akko and Eilat.
Aharoni's office will trumpet Israel's old and new attractions at the May 15 Israel Independence Day festival in Woodley Park in Van Nuys. A week later, on May 22, Eilat will join 20 other Los Angeles sister cities at a fair at the Page Museum gardens, next to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
Aharoni hopes that the easing last month of the U.S. State Department warning against travel to Israel will further encourage tourism from the United States.
Aharoni's father arrived in Israel as a youngster from northern Iran, near the Kurdistan border. The tourist office director, who was born in Jerusalem, regrets that she didn't learn Farsi (she's picking up Spanish), but is now learning how to cook Persian-style.
After army service, Aharoni studied at Hebrew University and Israel's official School of Tourism. She first joined the Ministry of Tourism in 1988 and has been working in the tourism field since, both for the government and in the private sector.
"Tourism is absolutely vital to Israel and its economy," she said. "For every additional 100,000 visitors, 4,000 new service jobs are created."For information about Israel tourism, call (323) 658-7463 or visit www.goisrael.com. Â