Israel has opened an investigation into what caused a tourist bus to crash into a guard-rail and plunge into a steep ravine near Eilat this week, killing 24 Russian travel agents in Israel’s worst traffic accident.
The group, from St Petersburg, flew into Ovda Airport on Tuesday and were on their way to Eilat to check out attractions for future Russian tourists.
Rami Vazana, the driver of another bus carrying Russian tour guides, said the vehicle passed him on a steep, narrow road when it crashed into the guard-rail and rolled down the slope.
Israeli Air Force helicopters and dozens of Magen David Adom ambulances raced to the scene to remove wounded passengers, many of whom were in
serious or critical condition.
“The accident is the result of road hooliganism,” Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz said. “It was not the result of poor road infrastructure. It was caused after the drivers got into an argument who would drive first and one passed the other on a sharp curve.”
Mr Mofaz initially said the bus drivers were “racing” but police said that was not the case and the driver of the bus that crashed was upset after he had been overtaken and decided to try and pass the other vehicle in a no-pass zone.
Defence Minster Ehud Barak spoke to the Russian ambassador to Israel and allocated an IDF transport aircraft to fly the bodies home.
While Israel was focused on relief efforts for the families of the victims, there was concern that the accident would impact negatively on the booming tourism industry from Russia.
Last year, under the leadership of then-tourism minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch, the Israeli government decided to cancel the visa requirement for tourists from Russia. Following this, around 400,000 Russian tourists visited Israel in 2008, compared with 200,000 in 2007.
Speaking on Wednesday as he left a Beersheba hospital where he had visited some of the wounded, Mr Aharonovitch said: “The accident might have a short-term impact on the number of tourists who visit Israel. In the long term though, I think the Russians will continue to come since they understand this wasn’t a terror attack but an accident and that accidents can happen anywhere.”
The Russian tourism industry, he continued, was responsible for employing some 16,000 people in Israel and brought close to $800 million in annual revenue. Russia was number two after the USA in the number of tourists visiting Israel.