Bridging the ties between the United Arab Emirates and Israel through tourism

On July 10, Israel welcomed its millionth tourist for 2022.

The visitor received a special welcome, personally welcomed by Minister of Tourism Yoel Razvozov during a ceremony at Ben Gurion International Airport. The cause of the celebration was clear; Israel hit the 1 million mark just four months after lifting tough coronavirus restrictions on the entry of foreigners that had reduced tourism to a virtual trickle for most of 2021, hoping to quickly return to its former glory. pre-pandemic rate of more than four million a year.

But there was another important factor in this arrival; the millionth tourist was Belinda Desoyo Lee Marcelo, a resident of the United Arab Emirates, a nation which, before the signing of the Abraham Accords less than two years earlier, had no official tourist traffic with Israel.

In signing the agreements, the two nations, along with fellow signatories Bahrain and (subsequently) Morocco, relied on tourism as a key factor in establishing economic ties, and perhaps the sector that would grow the most. rapidly.

Tourism and related businesses account for about 7% of Israel’s gross domestic product, and nearly double that figure for the UAE. The chance of a “peace tourism” boom between Israel and the Gulf offered tantalizing prospects to add significantly to those numbers.

Growing traffic
Certainly, on the side of the Israelis, the attraction of the United Arab Emirates, in particular Dubai, was immediate and impactful.

Despite coronavirus concerns and restrictions, thousands of Israelis have traveled to the UAE over the past two years, with normal traffic expected to average 50,000 tourists a month, taking the dozens of weekly direct flights now available between Ben Gurion Airport and Dubai and Abu Dhabi, via airlines such as El Al, Etihad, Emirates, Israir and Wizz Air.

The implementation last October of a mutual visa-free travel agreement – ​​the first signed between Israel and an Arab state – has helped streamline this process. And last February, Israel and the United Arab Emirates signed an agreement to strengthen cooperation in the tourism sector, including collaboration on market promotions, expanding mutual contribution to education and training industry professionals, facilitating the exchange of travel information in the public and private sectors, and organizing joint regional events for tourism professionals.

The impact of the Abraham Accords has also benefited Gulf tourism beyond the Israeli market. Warm new relations between Israel and the UAE have helped extend the UAE’s appeal to international Jewish travelers who previously might have been deterred by the nation’s lack of connections and lack of facilities in the Gulf for observant Jewish tourists.

Dubai has moved quickly to accommodate the latter, increasing the number of kosher restaurants to nearly a dozen and officially allowing three synagogues to serve as places of worship for the local Jewish community and visitors.

Tour operators now offer “Jewish heritage” trips to the Gulf, along with nonprofit groups such as the US-based “Visions of Abraham,” which see such trips as vehicles for building bonds of coexistence among Jews. , Muslims and Christians.

Israel’s tourism industry has also benefited from the country’s new ties to the Gulf. The precedent set by the Abraham Accords helped spur Saudi Arabia to finally allow – in July – the opening of its airspace to all air carriers, including Israel. The move allowed Israeli airlines to reduce flight hours not only between Tel Aviv and the Gulf, but also on many of its main Asian routes to popular destinations such as India and Thailand.

Another benefit provided by the Emirates for Israel’s tourism industry has been its use as a marketing platform, in a region which, due to politics, offers limited opportunities elsewhere. The Israeli government acted quickly after the signing of the Abraham Accords to upgrade its investment in the country’s pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, turning it into an impressive showcase for its various attractions for an audience of millions of visitors who were there. probably exposed for the first time.

Challenges encountered
The only piece of that picture still missing is a stream of Emirati tourists visiting Israel anywhere near those heading in the opposite direction. Israeli tourism officials say their goal is 100,000 visitors a year from the United Arab Emirates, but so far that figure looks more ambitious, even with the resumption of international travel.

The Muslim holy sites in the Old City of Jerusalem, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque and the Dome of the Rock shrine, are expected to prove major attractions for visitors to the Gulf; but again, Israel must find a way to coordinate with local Palestinian authorities to develop an efficient process, allowing Muslim pilgrims to visit these religious and politically sensitive sites with minimum interference and maximum security.

Finally, Israel must develop effective marketing campaigns for Emirati travelers, emphasizing the appeal of a destination that combines rich historical attractions with the vibrancy of a young and innovative nation, including regions such than Jaffa and Haifa which are home to some of the most progressive Arab communities found. anywhere in the region.

The leaders of Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco have taken the first big steps needed to close the gaps between their nations; but consolidating these budding ties will require deep people-to-people encounters between their respective populations, and a mutually beneficial tourist trade will likely be the best way to achieve this.

Calev Ben-David is the host of the evening news, The Rundown, on i24NEWS

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