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Talks on Direct Tel Aviv-UAE Flights, Visas in ‘Advanced Stages’

Israeli Tourism Ministry prepares to welcome Gulf visitors as Emirates Flight Catering signs MOU to set up kosher food production facility in UAE

Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) are in advanced stages of establishing direct aviation routes and concluding bilateral agreements for tourist visas, Israel’s Tourism Ministry has revealed.

Only days after signing a historic peace agreement, Israel’s tourism sector is already reporting a wave of interest from Emirati tour operators, travel agencies and hotels wishing to collaborate on ventures for both Israeli and Gulf travelers.

Despite the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, Israel’s Tourism Ministry is preparing for what it hopes will mark a turning point for tourist activity in the region.

In a statement to The Media Line, the ministry said the peace agreement signed at the White House this week “creates enormous potential” for tourism between Israel and the UAE and emphasized that negotiations were taking place at an “accelerated” pace.

“Agreements regarding the opening of direct aviation routes and tourism visas are in their advanced stages,” the ministry said. “Given the high levels of motivation on both sides, it is hoped that an agreement between the parties on these issues will be concluded soon.”

Agreements regarding the opening of direct aviation routes and tourism visas are in their advanced stages

Ministry representatives as well as professionals from the private sector are holding talks with their UAE counterparts on a wide variety of business proposals relating to aviation, marketing and joint tourism packages.

“One of the issues that the professional representatives agreed to promote swiftly is joint marketing with a third country – Middle East tour packages – that will combine a visit to Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, on flights that will overfly Saudi Arabia,” the ministry added..

Last week, the Israeli airline Israir announced it would offer direct flights to Abu Dhabi pending approval from the Emirati and Israeli authorities. Meanwhile, El Al and the UAE-based carriers Etihad Airways and Emirates will reportedly launch Tel Aviv-Dubai routes in the coming months.

Regarding travel to Israel, the Tourism Ministry revealed that it was crafting packages geared toward Emirati visitors in addition to creating an Arabic-language marketing website. The government body said it hoped to move forward with its plans as early as next year and that it expected a “high number” of travelers coming from the UAE – coronavirus permitting.

“Israel has much to offer the Emirati tourist, from the holy sites in and around Jerusalem such as the Temple Mount [and Aqsa Mosque] compound, the Mount of Olives and the Cave of the Patriarchs [in Hebron] to archeological sites rich in history around the country,” the ministry said in its statement. “Israel has a vibrant cultural and entertainment scene, offers diverse culinary experiences that include halal options, and Arabic is widely spoken.”

Israel has a vibrant cultural and entertainment scene, offers diverse culinary experiences that include halal options, and Arabic is widely spoken

Kosher Food Options on the Table

To make Israeli visitors feel welcome, UAE-based tour operators, airlines and hotels are working to ensure that several kosher food options are on the table.

To this end, Emirates Flight Catering on Thursday announced that it had partnered with CCL Holdings to set up a dedicated kosher food production facility. The joint venture, dubbed Kosher Arabia, is slated to take off in January.

Emirates Flight Catering is one of the largest catering operations in the world and works with over 100 airlines. Its chief executive officer, Saeed Mohammed, contracted with Ross Kriel, founder of CCL Holdings and head of the Jewish Council of the Emirates, for the project.

“All kosher meals for all Emirate Airlines flights will be made out of freshly made kosher ingredients at the highest standards. These meals will be fully produced in Dubai and the goal is to produce the best kosher meals in the world,” Kriel told The Media Line.

Saeed Mohammed (in white) and Ross Kriel (second from left) are shown on September 17 after signing an agreement for the provision of kosher airline food at the Dubai headquarters of Emirates Flight Catering. US-based businessman Eli Epstein is shown to the left, and Rabbi Yehuda Sarna, chief rabbi of the UAE, is to the right. (Courtesy)

Other kosher catering companies are following suit.

David Walles, general manager and chief executive officer of Kosher Travelers, has been in the business for 18 years. His company offers kosher vacation packages as well as deluxe cruises. Together with the Dubai-based catering company Elli’s Kosher Kitchen, Kosher Travelers will create a “kosherati” style cuisine: traditional Jewish food with an Emirati twist.

Elli Kriel, owner of Elli’s Kosher Kitchen and Ross Kriel’s wife, told The Media Line that she was in the process of registering commercial space for a large kosher kitchen that will enable her to scale up and accommodate the many leisure and business travelers seeking to visit once direct flights are established.

Israeli Tour Operators Report ‘Outpouring of Warmth’

Those who can afford the luxury of chartering a private jet can make the trip to the UAE – at least theoretically – right now.

Aviad Amitai is owner of the VIP Travel Agency, which caters to high-end clients. The company provides private jets to both Israeli and Emirati delegations for “only” $40,000 for eight people round-trip.

“We’re preparing to host delegations from the UAE as well as assist Israeli business delegations to travel to the UAE,” Amitai told The Media Line. “We already have advanced connections with senior people in the UAE and Bahrain for this matter both in terms of agreements with hotels and the tourist industry there.”

According to Amitai, VIP Travel Agency has worked closely with Abu Dhabi’s royal family and has partnered with a private aviation company to fly groups to and from the Gulf state.

Of course, most tourists will likely opt for more modest options.

In that vein, Israeli tour operators have already begun laying the groundwork for new ventures. Mark Feldman, chief executive officer of Jerusalem-based Ziontours, told The Media Line that there was no shortage of demand.

“The [Emiratis] have actually been incredibly assertive in reaching out to their Israeli counterparts, far more than us,” Feldman noted. “Travel agencies, tour operators and hotels are reaching out to me non-stop to try to get the Israeli market.”

Feldman calls it an “outpouring of warmth” he never expected – or experienced.

“I’ve never seen anything like it. It certainly didn’t happen with Egypt or Jordan,” he said.

I’ve never seen anything like it. It certainly didn’t happen with Egypt or Jordan

At the moment, the UAE is leading the charge in terms of contacting the Israeli market, with Bahrain lagging behind.

Israeli leisure travelers have shown a keen interest in visiting both Dubai and Abu Dhabi – so much that Feldman has been forced to create a waiting list.

“If we had flights and any Israeli could get a visa, we could be filling up planes daily,” he said.

On the other side, Emirati tourists also appear poised to create an entirely new market in Israel in the coming months.

Benny Scholder is director of North America sales for Tel Aviv-based Kenes Tours, an operator specializing in inbound tourism to Israel. Scholder told The Media Line that he expects Emirati businessmen to be among the first travelers to arrive, especially as leisure tourism has taken a hit from the pandemic.

“They’re very curious to be here, to learn about a country that was previously off-limits to them, and have expressed excitement to discover what Israel can offer,” he said, adding that Kenes develops customized itineraries for clients.

They’re very curious to be here, to learn about a country that was previously off-limits to them, and have expressed excitement to discover what Israel can offer

Like Ziontours, Kenes has received partnership proposals from UAE-based tour operators. Moreover, the company is looking into crafting unique travel experiences for North American clients that will include visits to both Israel and the Gulf, all in one package.

Despite this optimism, Scholder nevertheless cautions that some issues are still up in the air. For one, Emirati travelers have a well-established luxury hospitality industry and have become accustomed to excellent service, which they will also expect to encounter in Israel. Another concern in the travel industry is linked to security policies at Israel’s airports.

“Many people have expressed concerns in what their interactions will be when they arrive at the airport,” Scholder related.

“They come from an Arab state,” he notes. “What kind of apparatus will be in place to ensure that they’re not treated poorly by the authorities at the airport? Will they be looked at with suspicion because they’ve traveled to other states in their immediate vicinity that we don’t have a relationship with, and will that cause friction at the airport?”

Still, Scholder refuses to let such concerns cloud the overall promise of opportunity.

“We’re all just waiting, but we’re excited,” he said. “This is a big step in the right direction.”