For the first time ever, Israel is preparing for an influx of Muslim tourists. Following the signing of the Abraham Accords last year, Israelis rushed to the United Arab Emirates, touring a part of the world that for many was behind an iron curtain until recently.
Indeed, 2020 was a dramatic year for diplomatic relations in the Middle East. Agreements signed between Israel and four Muslim and Arab countries – namely, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – normalized relations between the long-estranged countries.
Diplomatic relations were established and economic agreements reached, and many expect more countries will follow and normalize relations with Israel.
But beyond the significant geopolitical and economic implications of this agreement, warm relations with at least three of the four countries (Morocco, Bahrain and the UAE) are expected to facilitate, for the first time in Israeli-Arab relations, a significant and steady flow of tourists between the countries.
Already, Israelis have rushed to the UAE. Taking advantage of a brief window in which restrictions against the coronavirus still allowed leisure travel abroad, December 2020 saw 67,000 Israeli tourists visit Dubai after direct flights were first introduced at the end of November.
A third wave of the pandemic has since closed off Israel from the rest of the world, but once the skies reopen – which, in vaccinated Israel may be sooner than in other countries – a significant number of Muslim and Arab tourists from Israel’s new regional friends are expected to arrive. And Israel’s Tourism Ministry and tourism industry are working hard to be ready to welcome them and cater to their tastes.
Ksenia Kobiakov, new markets development director in Israel’s Ministry of Tourism, says that “tens of thousands of tourists are expected to arrive after the reopening” of the skies, a sizeable amount considering the stunted condition of the global tourism industry.
Optimistic estimates, she says, see the number of Muslim tourists grow – over a period of years – to become a significant percentage of the millions of tourists that visit Israel during a normal year.
The materialization of this estimate, however, hinges not only on tourists from the Gulf, but on a change in the image of Israel as a travel destination for Muslims, that will be improved, the ministry hopes, as a result of Israeli efforts in the context of this opportunity.
Alaa al-Ali, the CEO of Nirvana Travel & Tourism, a large Emirati travel agency, also predicts an influx of Muslim tourists to Israel.
“My expectation at this stage is not less than 10,000 passengers on a monthly basis, initially,” he says.
The majority of them were Indonesians, making the trip for religious reasons. While the ban on foreign tourism has caused much of the tourism industry to shutter, at least temporarily, Israel’s Tourism Ministry has worked to prepare for a new kind of tourist to a large degree unknown in the country – the Muslim tourist.
“First of all, you have to understand the market, so we did our research,” Kobiakov says.
A second stage was creating bridges between the tourism industries in both countries; for example, a Zoom conference was held, in which hundreds of Emirati and Israeli tourism officials participated.
Kobiakov says that some travel agencies in the UAE are already selling summer travel packages to Israel, even though a date has yet to be set for Israel’s reopening to international tourism.
Special emphasis has been put on the UAE because of its larger estimated potential, and Emiratis can expect to see advertising for Israel in their country soon.
Additionally, the UAE offers another market for Israel – its majority expat population. Almost 90% of the Gulf country’s population is foreign, and Kobiakov says that they are being taken into consideration with marketing initiatives directed at them as well.
Noga Sher-Greco, director of religious tourism at the Ministry of Tourism, says that she has been busy “mapping sites and points of interests to the Muslim tourist.”
Sher-Greco says that the ministry intends to “go over the sites one by one” and see what needs to be done to make them more friendly for the Muslim tourist.
This can be achieved, for example, by creating new content that is more relevant and suitable to the Muslim tourist, or ensuring that there are explanations in Arabic.
Sher-Greco says that the country is dotted with Muslim architecture and sites of historic significance, such as the White Mosque in Ramla, which traces its roots back to the 8th century; and Mamluk architecture in Jerusalem’s Old City. This, in addition of course to sites of religious importance.
The ministry already has sent out a brochure detailing ‘do's and don’ts’ in dealing with Emirati tourists to help the Israeli tourism sector avoid making embarrassing mistakes arising from cultural differences.
Sher-Greco adds that the ministry held a seminar on Islam, Muslim tourists, the Five Pillars of Islam and central Islamic sites for its employees.
Morsi Hija, chairman of the Tour Guides’ Forum in the Arab sector in Israel, was a key partner in the ministry’s preparation for Muslim tourists.
Hija says that Israel’s attractiveness for Muslim tourists can be divided into three categories.
“There’s spiritual tourism, each person visits the places sacred to him,” he says.
With regard to the country’s importance vis a vis Islam, Hija says that a large segment of the Quran details “the stories of the prophets, be they prophets from, let’s say, the Old Testament, or from the New Testament. It’s a sacred land.”
And the visiting Muslims will definitely make a pilgrimage to the al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem and the Cave of the Patriarchs in Hebron, where Jews and Muslims believe Abraham, their shared patriarch, is buried.
Hija says that not everything ends with spiritual interest, however. Once a visitor has performed his religious duties, he’ll want to experience the country’s culture, learn about its history and see its landscapes.
“And we have a special country in all things: history, religion, culture, the human landscape and the natural landscape,” he says. Israel’s diversity in all aspects, as well as its rich history, will be a drawing factor for Muslim tourists.
This is in keeping with the results of Kobiakov’s research, based on surveys that were carried out in the new target countries. “First of all, Jerusalem is the center point,” she says.
However, Israel in its entirety, interests “this tourist, which is new to us, because this country is new to him.”
Tel Aviv, for example, is attractive to visitors from the Gulf countries, because of its reputation for innovation and business. The official also says that food is a point of interest; people want to compare “what’s different and what’s the same.”
Al-Ali also points to religious interests as a first point of attraction. What he calls “religious trips” will be the main focal point of Emirati visitors for their first visit.
He agrees that afterwards they would be interested in more general sites of heritage and touristic interest. In addition, he expects that Israel will see medical tourism from the UAE.
Al-Ali’s company already has started to work to bring Emirati tourists to Israel. “We have hired a representative management based in Jerusalem that can study the market intensively,” he says.
He also says that there is a “huge” amount of collaboration with Israeli travel agents in an effort to customize the Israeli product to the Emirati taste.
The Tourism Ministry and Hija have worked together on a project to bring Israel’s historic and religious sites closer to the Muslim tourist.
“We have connected the Bible, the Quran and the New Testament: in many places the stories are similar so I’ve started to connect them,” he says.
“We are trying to find what connects people, rather than divides.”
Hija says that another aspect that may attract Muslim tourists, especially from the Gulf, is the fact that while Israel is a Middle Eastern country, it is without the restrictions of the Arab world.
“A tourist from the Emirates is looking for what was once in Beirut,” he says. They are looking for a place in which they “can pray, but can also go to the beach,” without being beholden to social norms that may limit them in Arab countries.
“If someone from the Emirates wants to swim at the beach, and wants to swim in something that isn’t” according to their cultural norms, they can’t do that without exiting the Arab world.
“In Israel they can,” he says.
Hija believes that the benefits of this initiative may spread beyond the economic realm.
“I am sure that it will connect people, whether it be Arabic speakers – the Arab sector – and the Jewish sector, as well as people from other countries,” he s.
The new changes that are being made, the tour guide and tourism officials are hoping, will not only draw more tourists to Israel, but also expose Muslim visitors – whether they are from Israel’s new allies, or from countries whose citizens have visited in the past – to the country and its diverse population, thus generating better understanding between the worlds.
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line