WASHINGTON (JTA) – Israeli tourists may enter Tunisia with pre-arranged papers and Jews especially should feel comfortable attending a major Jewish festival in May, the Tunisian tourism minister said.
Amel Karboul contacted JTA in the wake of the denial of entry earlier this week to Israeli tourists aboard a Norwegian cruise liner.
“We are open to all visitors,” Karboul said Thursday in a phone interview from Paris, where she had met with Jewish groups, including representatives of the American Jewish Committee. “I want to use this occasion to invite the Jewish community to come and celebrate this pilgrimage with us.”
Norwegian Cruise Lines said the policy requiring pre-arranged visas was a new one and said that the denial of entry to 20 Israeli passengers aboard its Jade ship was discriminatory.
It canceled stops in Tunisia until the country resolved the matter.
Karboul said the policy was always in place, and that she was attempting to reach out to officials of Norwegian Cruise Lines to explain what happened.
She said visitors from countries such as Israel that do not have a visa waiver agreement with Tunisia must arrange visas beforehand; she named Egypt and Brazil as countries where citizens must arrange visas prior to arrival.
In the case of Israel, which has not had diplomatic relations with Tunisia since 2000, Karboul said would-be visitors are faxed the requisite papers from Tunisian legations outside Israel.
Tunisia is seen as perhaps the sole success of the 2011 “Arab Spring,” which saw the ouster of longtime dictators in a number of Arab countries; its government is democratically elected and features peaceful collaboration between liberals and Islamists.
“We receive 7 million tourists from all over the world” each year “and they are all welcome regardless of nationality, religion,” she told JTA.
Each year hundreds of Jews of Tunisian descent, including from the Israeli community, attend Lag b’Omer festivities on the island of Djerba.
This year, the festival, marking a break during the 49 days of mourning between Passover and Shavuot, falls on May 18.
The Jewish presence on the island is believed to date back to the first exile, in the 6th century BCE.