The historic peace accord between Israel and the United Arab Emirates represents a potential turning point for air travel and business investments in the region, tourism experts believe.
While details of the agreement have yet to be inked, Emirati tour operators have already begun to reach out to their Israeli counterparts to prepare for the boost in visitors it is expected to generate. Mark Feldman, CEO of the Jerusalem-based Ziontours, told The Media Line that he had already received such an offer from a Dubai-based operator.
“The Emirates are 9 million people but only 1 million are citizens; the rest are foreign workers there,” Feldman said. “Will any of the 1 million come here? They’ll be coming for business. That’s our connection and that’s where the biggest travel will come from.”
Aside from the increase in travel, the arrival of UAE-based Etihad Airways and Emirates carriers will create a major challenge for El Al and Turkish Airlines, which have dominated the Israeli travel market, Feldman said.
n the other side of the travel equation, Feldman said that he had already witnessed sharp interest from Israelis wishing to visit the Gulf state, despite the COVID-19 pandemic being in full swing and there as yet being no direct flights.
“Israelis, both for business and leisure, love exploring new places,” he explained. “My leisure people have already been contacting me non-stop asking, ‘What about the shopping there?’
“The facilities there are phenomenal, the hotels are world-class, but there’s a whole other culture that Israelis are going to have to understand,” he continued, adding that it would take several months for travel between Dubai, Abu Dhabi, and Israel to really get off the ground.
On Thursday, Israel and the UAE announced the establishment of full diplomatic relations, in an agreement brokered by the United States, one which required Israel to freeze its West Bank annexation plans. The UAE is the first Gulf country to cement formal ties with the Jewish state.
In a joint statement, the US, Israel and UAE hailed the breakthrough as a “testament to the bold diplomacy and vision of the three leaders [President Donald Trump, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan] and the courage of the United Arab Emirates and Israel to chart a new path that will unlock the great potential in the region.”
As part of normalization efforts, delegations from Israel and the UAE are expected to meet in the coming weeks and sign a number of bilateral agreements. An Israeli official who asked to remain anonymous told The Media Line that the fine print of the accord was still being ironed out and that more information regarding travel and tourism would be available soon.
Israel’s Tourism Ministry meanwhile is hopeful that the move will be a boon for visits between the two countries once the coronavirus crisis subsides.
“This bilateral tourism will include, among others, the Muslim pilgrimage to the sites in Israel holy for Muslims, and Israelis visiting the UAE, including participation in the international Expo exhibition scheduled to take place in Dubai,” the ministry related to The Media Line in a written statement, referring to the World Expo that Dubai was expected to host in October 2020 but which has been postponed to 2021 as a result of the COVID-19 outbreak.
“In line with the record-breaking numbers of incoming tourists visiting Israel in recent years, records have been broken in the numbers of visitors to Israel from Arab and Muslim countries, including those which maintain and those which do not maintain ties with Israel,” the statement read.
As in other parts of the world, Israel’s tourism industry has taken a massive hit from the pandemic, with tens of thousands in the sector having been laid off since mid-March. More than 40% of hotels across the country remain closed, recent Tourism Ministry figures show.
In a bid to soften the financial blow, on Sunday Israel’s cabinet approved a NIS 300 million ($88 million) aid package for hotels aimed at keeping them open. Hotel facilities will be eligible to receive funding in line with how much they have been hurt by the closure of Israel’s skies and the accompanying ban on the entry of foreign nationals. The grants will be distributed for June 2020-May 2021.
Israeli tour operators, who are also struggling with the economic fallout of the global crisis, are particularly keen to cash in on budding ties with the Emiratis. Many see the promise of more convenient and cheaper air travel in the region as especially promising.
“This is really significant from a tourism perspective because of the UAE’s airlines,” Mushi Vered, CEO of Vered Hasharon Travel Group, told The Media Line. “We have offices in the Philippines and Thailand, etc., so this means that all of the East has gotten closer to us [travel-wise] by three hours thanks to this ability to now fly over the Emirates.”
Flights to and from Israel had hitherto been forbidden to enter UAE airspace and had thus been forced to make time-consuming circumventions to reach destinations in the Far East.
Like Feldman, Vered also believes that the primary benefit of incoming tourism from the Gulf state will come in the form of new business opportunities, especially in the high-tech sector.
“I think that this is good news for all of us,” he affirmed, adding that his company has temporarily shut down due to the pandemic. “We already have [tour] programs for Muslims, but the Emirates requires a different approach because they are more of an upper-market [sector].”
Other tour operators, who had up until now not offered tours in Arabic due to a lack of demand, also expressed enthusiasm over the development.
“We will certainly be able to accommodate requests for private tours in Arabic to show the country,” Asaf Ben Ari, vice-CEO of Bein Harim Tourism Services, told The Media Line. “Any further tourism service such as transfers and experiences within Israel, Bein Harim would be willing to pursue operating and cooperating with Emirati agents. We have guides who speak Arabic.”
Because the UAE represents a whole new kind of clientele, Ben Ari said that Israeli tour operators would have to learn the market in order to craft travel packages that are customized to Emirati travelers’ needs.
“We would embrace any initiative to encourage people to come and travel and see what Israel has to offer,” he said.
At the end of the day, however, some industry insiders argue that although business people will visit the Jewish state to explore commercial opportunities, Israeli travelers will likely make up the lion’s share of traffic between the two countries.
“It’s exciting for Israelis to be able to go there and I’m sure at the beginning there will be lots of packages for five or six days,” Feldman said. “I think when Israelis find out how hot it is there, they may not enjoy it but it opens up a completely different part of the world that they’ve never been to.
“It’s unknown, alien, and [unlike anything] we’ve ever experienced,” he said.