Israelis dream of Emirates, Etihad and Muslim pilgrims

Bar on an Emirates aircraft / Photo: Company website

Normalization with the UAE opens up enormous aviation and tourism potential - in both directions.

The new era opening up in relations between Israel and the Arab world, with the forthcoming signing of a normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates (UAE), could turn out to be big news for the tourism and aviation industries. This is of course assuming that UAE-based airlines Etihad Airways and Emirates operate scheduled flights to Tel Aviv's Ben Gurion Airport. Dreaming is always allowed, but this time it looks as though the dream could come true quite soon.

Last May, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic, aviation history was made, exciting aviation enthusiasts and plane spotters, when an Etihad Airways plane landed at Ben Gurion from Abu Dhabi. This was admittedly a cargo flight, but the plane landed on Israeli soil sporting full Etihad livery (unlike the unmarked plane flown by EgyptAir). This cargo flight sparked a glimmer of hope that the day would come when Etihad planes would fill up with passengers on the Tel Aviv-Abu Dhabi route. The normalization agreement brings that vision closer, and by next year it will probably happen, openly and above-board. That expectation is also based on the assumption that Israelis will be able to obtain tourist visas easily, and that difficulties will not be raised in the way of incoming tourism from the UAE, which will mainly be of a religious nature.

Fantasies of a Tel Aviv-Abu Dhabi line

Two very interesting airlines operate in the UAE. Etihad Airways is the national airline of Abu Dhabi, and is one of the world's most acclaimed airlines, particularly for its first and business class services. The airline has a fleet of about 100 aircraft with an average age of under six years, which earns it prizes and high passenger ratings. In 2019, it carried 17.5 million passengers, and average seat occupancy was 79%. It flies to 84 destinations in 55 countries, and we can now hope that an additional Middle Eastern country will join the list.

The largest airline in the UAE is Emirates, based in Dubai. Emirates consistently wins "best airline in the world" titles, and is considered the airline offering the best service. In 2019, its fleet of 270 aircraft carried 56 million passengers. Emirates flies to 157 destinations, and employs nearly 60,000 people.

Aviation industry sources are optimistic about flights from Tel Aviv being operated by at least one of these airlines within a year. "There is already interest," says one source, who believes that within six months it will be possible to launch a route between the two countries. Another source says that "neither Emirates nor Etihad expected this; we'll have to study their plans and understand them, and they won't necessarily be in a hurry."

Aviation and tourism expert Yossi Fischer is certain that the flights will not be just to Ben Gurion. "Eventually, when the airport at Ramat David is constructed, flights from Abu Dhabi will be able to land there as well. I have visited the UAE twice, and the potential for tourism to there from Israel could reach 300,000 passengers in the first year, and even half a million by the second year."

The route from the UAE over Saudi Arabia and Jordan will be 3.5-4 hours. A flight from Abu Dhabi to Amman takes three hours, and is priced at $500-600 on the legacy airlines. Flights to Tel Aviv will presumably cost at least as much. "I believe that, initially, Etihad, the UAE flag carrier, will fly here, and that after that we shall see a low-cost airline like Air Arabia (a recently launched airline 51% owned by Etihad, M. R-Z.) as well, or even flights by Wizz Air, which recently opened a base in Abu Dhabi. The big question is whether the Saudis will allow Israeli airlines to fly to the UAE through their airspace. I have no doubt that they will allow the Emirati airlines to do so," Fischer says.

The Israeli airlines seek mutuality in aviation agreements, but they already know that in reality there is none - Turkish Airlines, for example, dominates the Tel Aviv-Istanbul route, while Israeli airlines cannot fly it. With the coronavirus pandemic, another little bit of history was made when El Al flew cargo flights to Istanbul, and after an interval of a decade planes carrying the Israeli flag landed at an airport there, but as far as passenger flights are concerned the picture is unlikely to change. Apart from Turkish Airlines, Turkey-based Pegasus also flies the Istanbul-Tel Aviv route.

El Al also suffers from discrimination against it on the India route. Air India received permission to fly from Delhi to Tel Aviv over Saudi Arabia, whereas El Al has to circumvent it, adding about 90 minutes to the flight time, which is significant for costs and for pricing fares.

On the El Al cabin crew Facebook page a joke announcement was posted on the launch of flights to Abu Dhabi, with El Al air hostesses dressed accordingly, but as we said, everyone is allowed to dream.

Halal tourism

Israelis are already imagining the new tourist destination opened up for them, with the luxury hotels in the Emirates, but interesting possibilities have also opened up for incoming tourism. Yossi Fattal, director of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association, looks forward to the day when he will host groups of tourists from the UAE, but he doesn't think it will happen quickly. "Not because of politics," he says. "Before politics, there has to be an economic case, and we are in a deep crisis in which we are all trying at best to get back on a profitable track. From the economic point of view, the advent of airlines from the Emirates here is a long-term strategic move of the kind that airlines do not make at times of crisis like these. What leads to the opening of new routes is mainly business considerations, so in my view we won't see such a route in the coming year. Nevertheless, it's worth remembering that before the coronavirus crisis thousands of Israelis flew on airlines from the Emirates on connecting flights."

Fattal points out that airlines from the UAE entered into partnerships with and even bought European airlines "with the aim of offering continuation flights." An example is Alitalia, of which Etihad Airways bought 49% in 2014 (the EU does not allow foreign companies to hold a majority stake in a European airline), and which has meanwhile been nationalized by the Italian government in order to save it. Fattal believes that airlines aspiring to expand their routes will come to Israel. "In the future, they will come to Israel as well, and they will be aggressive and will want to demonstrate dominance of the market. In the long term, this is bad news for El Al, because they will bite off market share in traffic to the Far East via connecting flights. These are destinations that are important and profitable for El Al."

In this respect, competition is not just with El Al. Turkish Airlines is also very strong in connecting flights for Israeli passengers, and will have cause for concern, as will airlines from the Far East such as Cathay Pacific and Hainan.

Dr. Eran Keter, a consultant and a researcher in tourism in the Tourism and Hotel Management Department at Kinneret Academic College, endorses Fattal's view. "The establishment of relations between Israel and the UAE is not just a political and diplomatic opportunity, but also an aviation and tourism opportunity. Emirates has a wide range of destinations in Asia, including in India, China and Japan, that facilitate improved access to main business centers. For tourism and leisure, Emirates can offer convenient, fast access to main touring and vacation destinations such as Thailand, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and the Maldives. All this by flying eastwards, without the need for roundabout routes via regional airports such as Istanbul and Frankfurt that serve Israel today.

"Another way in which the establishment of relations is important," says Keter, "is in opening the Israeli market to incoming tourism from the Gulf states, thereby starting to realize Israel's potential for Muslim pilgrimage tourism, known as 'halal tourism.' Israel has several important tourist sites, such as Jerusalem, Acre, and Hebron, social and cultural ties with the Islamic world, and tourism infrastructure well adapted to tourists whose language is Arabic and who strictly observe Islamic law."

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on August 16, 2020

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

Bar on an Emirates aircraft / Photo: Company website
Bar on an Emirates aircraft / Photo: Company website
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