Some 3.5 million tourists will have entered Israel by the end of 2012, an increase of 4% over last year’s figures, a Tourism Ministry press release announced on Sunday.

The US — despite a drop of 4% from last year — remained the country sending the highest number of tourists to Israel: 610,000 in 2012. Russia, on the other hand, saw a 20% increase in visitors to Israel; it was a close second behind the US with 590,000 visitors.

Rounding out the top five countries of origin for tourists were France, Germany and the UK.

“Tourism has become a main engine for growth in the economy,” said Minister of Tourism Stas Misezhnikov. “Making tourism a preferred national industry will strengthen Israel in economic, image and advocacy terms.”

This year broke the record despite a marked drop in visitors in November as a result of Israel’s Pillar of Defense. November tourism had been projected to increase by 12% over the previous year, but instead dropped by 43% because of the 8-day escalation in the Gaza Strip, which saw hundreds of rockets fired on Israeli cities by terrorists from the Strip as Israel carried out 1,500 air strikes on targets in Gaza. The biggest decline was in tourism from Russia.

The ministry press release also reported that 58% of the year’s incoming tourists were Christian pilgrims and that almost two-thirds (62%) of the tourists were first-time visitors.

The most visited locale was Jerusalem, followed by Tel Aviv, the Dead Sea, Tiberias and Nazareth.