Calev’s Newsroom: Bridging ties between UAE and Israel through tourism
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Calev’s Newsroom: Bridging ties between UAE and Israel through tourism

Calev’s Newsroom: Bridging ties between UAE and Israel through tourism

Israel must develop effective marketing campaigns for Emirati travellers


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

The visitor was given a special welcome, personally greeted by Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov in a ceremony at Ben-Gurion International Airport. The cause for celebration was clear; Israel hit the one million mark just four months after lifting the strict coronavirus restrictions on foreign entry that had reduced tourism to a virtual trickle over most of 2021, hoping to return quickly to its pre-pandemic rate of over four million a year.

But there was another significant factor in this arrival; the one millionth tourist was Belinda Desoyo Lee Marcelo, a resident of the UAE, a nation that prior to the signing of the Abraham Accords less than two years earlier, had no official tourist traffic with Israel.

In signing the Accords, both nations, along with fellow signatories Bahrain and (subsequently) Morocco, were counting on tourism as a key factor in building economic ties, and perhaps the sector that would develop the quickest.

Tourism and related businesses account for some 7 per cent of Israel’s gross domestic product, and nearly double that number for the UAE. The chance of a “peace tourism’’ boom between Israel and the Gulf offered tantalising prospects to significantly add to those figures.

Growing traffic
Certainly on the side of Israelis, the lure of the UAE, in particular Dubai, has been immediate and impactful.

Despite coronavirus concerns and restrictions, thousands of Israelis have travelled 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 both Dubai and Abu Dhabi, via such airlines 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 that process. And last February, Israel and the UAE signed an agreement to boost cooperation in the tourism sector, including collaboration on market promotions, expanding mutual input into tourism industry education and vocational training, facilitating the exchange of travel information in both the public and private sectors, and holding joint regional events for tourism professionals.

The impact of the Abraham Accords has also benefitted tourism to the Gulf beyond the Israeli market. The new warm relations between Israel and the UAE has helped expand the lure of the UAE to international Jewish travellers who previously may have been dissuaded by the lack of relations between the nations, and the dearth of facilities in the Gulf for religiously observant Jewish tourists.

Dubai has moved quickly to accommodate the latter, expanding the number of kosher eateries to nearly a dozen, and officially licensing three synagogues to act as houses of worship for both the local Jewish community and visitors.

Tour operators are now offering “Jewish Heritage’’ trips to the Gulf, along with non-profit groups such as the US-based “Visions of Abraham’’ that see such trips as vehicles to build coexistence ties between Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Israel’s tourism industry has also benefitted from the country’s new ties with the Gulf. The precedent set by the Abraham Accords was a factor in encouraging Saudi Arabia to finally authorise – in July – the opening of its airspace for all air carriers, including Israel. The move has enabled Israeli airlines to cut hours of flying time not only between Tel Aviv and the Gulf, but many of its key Asian routes to popular destinations 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 that due to politics provides limited opportunities elsewhere. The Israeli government moved quickly after the signing of the Abraham Accords to upgrade its investment in the country’s pavilion at Expo 2020 Dubai, transforming it into an impressive showcase for its various attractions for an audience of millions of visitors who were likely being exposed to them for the first time.

Challenges faced
The one piece of this picture still lacking is a flow of Emirati tourists visiting Israel anywhere near those heading in the opposite direction. Israeli tourism officials say their target is 100,000 visitors annually from the UAE, but so far that figure seems more aspirational, even with the revival of international travel.

The Muslim holy spots in Jerusalem’s Old City, including the Al-Aqsa Mosque and Dome of the Rock shrine, should prove to be major attractions for visitors from the Gulf; but again, Israel must find a way to coordinate with local Palestinian authorities in developing an efficient process, enabling Muslim pilgrims to visit these religious and politically sensitive sites with minimal interference and maximum security.

Finally, Israel must develop effective marketing campaigns for Emirati travellers, emphasising the appeal of a destination that combines rich historical attractions with the dynamism of a young, innovative nation, including such areas as Jaffa and Haifa that feature some of the most progressive Arab communities found anywhere in the region.

The leaders of Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco have taken the first big leaps needed to bridge the gaps between their nations; but solidifying these new-born ties will require deep people-to-people encounters between their respective populations, and mutually beneficial tourist trade will likely be the best vehicle to make that happen.

Calev Ben-David is an anchor of the nightly news programme, The Rundown, on i24NEWS


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