While the entire world has been scarred by the Covid-19 pandemic, the Middle East has another historic, and more positive, reason to remember 2020 by - the signing of peace accords between Israel and the UAE, and Israel and Bahrain.
At the very least, this sends out a message of safety and cooperation in the perceived to be conflict-ridden region of the Middle East, Ksenia Kobiakov, Israel’s Director of New Markets Development, Ministry of Tourism, tells TTN in an exclusive interview. “This is great for us.”
“There are a lot of opportunities and new possibilities, not just for Israel but for the entire region,” she says. “Long-haul travellers can now club two or three very different and very interesting countries in one visit, have longer, more diverse itineraries, reduce journey times and potentially increase the length of their stay. We are in talks of promoting joint packages including UAE, Bahrain and Israel from travellers around the world.”
"There are many reasons to visit Israel, not just because it is a ‘new’ destination that wasn’t accessible to everyone and has suddenly become available"
– Ksenia Kobiakov
For the UAE and Bahrain, this may translate to more travellers especially from the US, which is traditionally the most important feeder market for Israel, with about 600,000 arrivals annually. Likewise for Israel, this means increased global connectivity for outbound and inbound travel, cheaper and shorter flights across Asia through the hub of Dubai and easier access to new potential feeder markets such as Australia.
“But perhaps what makes us most excited is to welcome you to our country, share our culture and our destination with you. Israel is waiting for you.”
The UAE and Israel signed a mutual visa waiver agreement following the normalisation of ties, enabling travellers to obtain visas on arrival. While the expatriate residents of UAE and Bahrain will not get visas on arrival, negotiations are ongoing to ease their visa processes through a consular company till Israeli embassies and consulates are established. Filipinos don’t need a visa to enter Israel, while the process for Indians is fairly straightforward, Kobiakov adds.
“Israel is a very unique country with three main religions. Although Israel is just one-fourth the size of the UAE, we have nine climate zones. The weather is perfect all year round. When you drive around Israel, everything changes every few minutes: whether it is landscapes or weather. We have four major water bodies with the Mediterranean Sea, Dead Sea, Red Sea and the Sea of Galilee, which is really a large lake but a very historic and significant landmark.
“We are a country of contrasts. We are at the confluence of the East and the West, we are one of the youngest countries in the world with thousands of years of history behind us. Israel is known for very high standards of medical treatments and also has a rich wellness portfolio with the Dead Sea, we love to eat healthy and Tel Aviv was recently recognised as one of the most important cities in the world for vegan food.
“There are many reasons to visit Israel, not just because it is a ‘new’ destination that wasn’t accessible to everyone and has suddenly become available,” she adds.
Israel's Ministry of Tourism, as part of its wider promotional activities in this region, is all set to participate at the upcoming Arabian Travel Mart with a big delegation and at EXPO 2020 Dubai with an impressive stand. Prior to this, the ministry will be spreading awareness about its brand and its portfolio of travel products among travellers and the travel agent community, starting as early as January. Fam trips are being planned for tour operators, media and influencers once the borders open up.
USA is the biggest feeder market for Israel with 600,000 visitors, followed by Russia and France each at about 350,000 visitors, followed by Germany, UK and Italy. After the market recovers from Covid-19, in the first year of proper operations, Israel aims to welcome 80,000 visitors from the UAE and Bahrain. If the number exceeds 100,000 visitors, Kobiakov says, the UAE and Bahrain will already feature in our top ten most important inbound markets.
Israel and the UAE have signed an aviation agreement, which will allow up to 112 weekly flights between the two countries. Israel’s Israir was the first Israeli airline to operate a commercial flight to Dubai followed by El Al Airline. Arkia Airline has also announced to start daily flights between Dubai and Tel Aviv from January 2021, though some delays may occur to due Covid-19 uncertainties. Flydubai has already started to operate flights between Dubai and Tel Aviv, with the low-cost carrier operating 14 flights a week offering a double daily service between Dubai International and Tel Aviv Ben Gurion airports. Airlines like Emirates and Etihad have also announced direct flights to Israel in 2021.
“The first wave of travellers to Israel should definitely see the two urban gems of Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, featuring its sandy beaches, a sprawling metropolis and breathtaking natural beauty, over a weekend perhaps. You can explore these two cities that are barely 45 minutes apart, yet so different: Jerusalem's unique holy sites and the young and vibrant city of Tel Aviv with its night life, beaches and culinary scene. Depending on the length of stay, travellers should add Dead Sea to their itinerary and the stunning North, with its verdant landscapes and waterfalls and of course, history. Kids will enjoy the underwater observatory in the Red Sea too.”
It is obvious that religious tourism will be a key priority for many Muslims and Christians when headed to Israel. “On the Christian front, we have been working on this for many years, so this is not a problem for us at all and we look forward to Christian tourists.
However, this is the first time that Israel as a country will promote Muslim tourism, so we are currently researching the what and how of this. Hopefully this will not take too much time to iron out.”
Israel is working on a bilingual B2C and B2B tourism portal dedicated to the Gulf market, for a January launch. At the same time, the ministry is also working on a dedicated site for travel agents, which will feature an online academy to learn more about the country and become certified sellers when they complete the course.
“We are a very family friendly destination as we tend to have large families ourselves, so our properties are equipped and our destination is equipped for family travel. We think kids first. We have some luxury hotels, unique hotels such as the Beresheet, which has been built on a naturally occurring crater. You have to come and see for yourself.”
Last month, Israel’s Tourism Minister, Orit Farkash-Hacohen addressed the audience at the first virtual UAE-Israel tourism forum hosted by the officials from Israel's Ministry of Tourism. Some 500 attendees were part of this from both sides. Israel is preparing to welcome tourists from the UAE and will be adhering to the advice of health experts to ensure it remains a safe destination in terms of Covid-19 exposure, the country's tourism minister said. The key aim of the forum was to build the foundation for a long-term tourism relationship between Israel and the UAE.
Orit Farkash-Hacohen, Israel’s Tourism Minister, said, “Tourism is key to building a lasting peace between countries, and Israel looks forward to welcoming travellers from the UAE. I am certain visitors from the UAE and other countries will enjoy the unique blend of this new, and near, destination. Israel is where thousands of years of history meet modern day life. It is the home of Tel Aviv and the StartUp Nation and of ancient Caesarea and the magnificent Dead Sea. Israel's unique religious sites are holy to Jews, Christians and Muslims, with Jerusalem at their centre. Alongside the sites, visitors will enjoy the people, culture, art, music and culinary delights.”
By Rashi Sen
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