Israel awaits influx of Muslim tourists

Jerusalem from the east / Photo: Shutterstock illustration , Shutterstock.com

Normalization with the UAE opens up a huge new tourism market, if Israel can adapt its security procedures.

UAE low-cost carrier flydubai launches its Tel Aviv - Dubai flights later this month with Israir Airlines and Tourism Ltd. and Arkia starting daily flights next month and it is only a matter of time before El Al Israel Airlines Ltd. (TASE: ELAL), Emirates and Etihad Airways get in on the act. This week flydubai flew Israeli tourists to Dubai on a special charter flight. While there is much focus on the UAE as an attractive destination for Israeli tourists, there is less talk about the huge potential for bringing Emiratis to Israel, especially religious tourists to see the sacred Muslim sites in Jerusalem. The potential becomes even greater when adding Bahrain and Sudan to the equation, not to mention the long list of Arab countries considering normalizing ties with Israel, and then the entire Muslim world.

"These are processes that transform the status of Israel in the Middle East and the entire world," says Dr. Shahar Shilo from the Department of Tourism and Hotel Management at Ben Gurion University of the Negev and tourism manager for the Har Negev Regional Council. Shilo thinks that a change in relations with Saudi Arabia could have broad significance and make Israel a legitimate country to visit.

The reality has changed but we are waiting for Saudi Arabia

There are 1.5 billion Muslims in the world of whom 90% are Sunnis and the rest Shiite. Shilo explains, "Most of the world's Muslims are not Arabs. Arabs make up only about 20% of Muslims worldwide and most of these Muslims have no dispute with Israel but they have refrained from coming here for other reasons. Muslim countries tend to fall in line with Saudi Arabia because of entry visas and not wanting to lose access to the holy sites in Mecca for their4 citizens that want to make the haj pilgrimage to there. If and when Saudi Arabia changes its relationship to Israel, and also due to its relations with Iran, we will see tourists flocking here." Shilo quotes figures from the UN World Tourism Organization (UNWTO), which says that in 2050 Muslims will comprise half of the world's tourists. He adds, "Israel can also benefit from this growth as long as the attitudes of the Arab countries changes. Between 2017 and 2019, 100,000 Muslim tourists visited Israel, a large part of them pilgrims from Turkey as well as tourist groups from Indonesia."

He continues, "The potential for incoming Muslim tourists does not end with the Arab countries but extends to Asia. Israel has a unique and relevant tourist product for the Muslim tourist from Jerusalem, which represents an important Islamic focus and the Temple Mount, which is a heritage site of world importance, through to Al Jazzar Mosque in Akko. But you need two to tango and Israel need to put an emphasis on the product that it can offer Muslims and they need to want to come and visit and feel comfortable."

"Every tourist will want to visit the holy sites of the Al Aksa Mosque and Dome of the Rock and many will also want to combine it with a visit to liberal Tel Aviv. It would be possible to build an 'In the footpath of Salah A'Din' tourism product with a stress on the fateful Horns of Hittite battle in 1187, which is enormously revered by Muslims and then combine that with Israel's status as a high-tech nation with offerings of technological developments, for example in the agricultural and water sectors. In addition to the religious sites, Israel is a western country that can be an excellent entertainment destination for the secular Muslim."

Even the secular want a religious tourist product

Shilo starts from the assumption that even the most secular tourist visiting Israel wants to visit the relevant religious sites to their faith and combine the trip with a day in Jerusalem. "Two years ago the Ministry of Tourism conducted a survey among those who come to Israel for the Tel Aviv Gay parade. It turns out that 80% of them visited the historical and religious sites in Jerusalem. And that is the most important product that Israel has to offer, the combination of heritage and permissiveness. The LGBT Muslim community is also an interesting target as well as secular tourists seeking a destination in which they can walk around holding hands without any problems."

Until not so long ago Israel was a country in which it was forbidden to even mention its name. Do you believe that relations will turn 180°?

"There wasn't genuine hostility with the countries that recently signed agreements with Israel. It's true that peace can be one-sided as it is between Israel and Egypt with visits between the countries being mainly from Israel but in contrast to the UAE, with Egypt there were hostilities with Israel. Saudi Arabia took an extreme line against Israel because it linked its relations to us to the Palestinian conflict but today the Saudi royal family has changed its approach and that it the key point, it is a change that influences not only the Saudis but also the entire Muslim world."

"Even without recognition, a large potential has been opened up - take for example the 130 million Muslims in India. There is an economic increase in Muslim tourism throughout the world, why should Israel not be part of that if it can. We have advantages that we cannot overlook and they are the sacred sites in Jerusalem of course but also Akko, Hebron, Hisham Palace in Jericho, Beersheva, Jaffa and Haifa."

On the questioning at Ben Gurion airport change is required

"We have already received many enquiries about incoming Muslim tourism and to create packages including a visit to Israel," says Yossi Fattal, director general of the Israel Tourism Bureau, who believes that as soon as plan for incoming Muslim tourism is approved, Muslim group will arrive immediately, similarly to religious tourism generally which is the first layer of tourism.

Fattal divides the potential for Muslim tourism into several groups, "If out of the 100 million tourists who pass through the UAE aviation hub every year, we succeed in persuading 500,000 or 1 million visitors to include a trip to Israsel, then that is a huge success. We are talking about tourists who pass through the UAE or Jordan who would want to include a two or three day visit to Jerusalem. This is a subject that has already arisen because the Emirates and Etihad airlines want to often packages combining pilgrimages to Mecca and Jerusalem. It's a product with vast potential that we have been talking about for years. In the field of religious tourism, Israel doesn't even have to make an effort to market itself but simply produce a procedure for a combined visit."

Fattal thinks that free independent travelers (FIT) tourism will only be a relatively small part of the new tourism with the emphasis there being on business tourism. "We are not talking about large numbers but a segment that has financial importance including holding conferences and events. Many Emirati businesspeople combine business and leisure and when they travel to meetings in Europe, they stay there for a week or two. That can also happen in Israel if we remember that this is tourism that demands a high level of hospitality."

Another segment in which Fattal sees potential for incoming tourism is from the countries that stand out on the flights network of the UAE airlines, such as the Philippines and India, and can come to Israel on connection flights via the UAE.

Israel is an expensive destination and this can put off potential tourists

"Israel's problem is not the price but value for money. This is tourism that is ready to pay for high value, and so there is a challenge here. The smart thing would be to turn to the relevant market segments."

And there is also the matter of security, mainly when we are talking about Arab tourists, for example the questioning at the airport

"The whole issue of security must undergo revision. There is a certain improvement in this matter with most of this process at Ben Gurion airport carried out electronically, and on the matter of questioning a change will be required as well as on entry to the Temple Mount on the Palestinian side. We have already seen clips of tourists from the UAE who have been humiliated on entry and this cannot continue."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on November 10, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

Jerusalem from the east / Photo: Shutterstock illustration , Shutterstock.com
Jerusalem from the east / Photo: Shutterstock illustration , Shutterstock.com
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