Israel's tourism minister hopes that his industry could pave the way for normalization with Saudi Arabia. Looking at neighboring Gulf states, it will take more than air routes and visas to shift sentiment.
During a historic visit to Saudi Arabia earlier this week, Israel’s Minister of Tourism said that it is the travel industry that can thaw the frosty relations between the two countries. Haim Katz’s visit marked the most senior member of the Israeli government to visit the Gulf kingdom.
Katz’s two-day stay to attend a United Nations World Tourism Organization event comes as the U.S. negotiates a deal that would see Israel and Saudi Arabia establish diplomatic relations for the first time.
“Tourism is a bridge between nations,” Katz said in the statement reported by Bloomberg. “Tourism cooperation has the potential to bring us closer together and herald economic flourishing.”
Katz’s statement is near-identical to what Saudi’s own tourism minister said during the same conference. Ahmed Al Khateeb said in an address: “There is a [Israeli] delegation here in the country for the first time. I hope they were received well. Everyone in this room understands that tourism is the bridge between people and between cultures.”
The Saudi crown prince said in an interview with Fox News last week that the two countries are getting closer every day to normalizing relations. Mohammed bin Salman said: “It seems it’s for the first time a real one, serious. We’re gonna see how it goes.”
Israel Saudi Tourism Outlook
Looking at how Israeli tourism has performed in other Gulf states, thinking Saudi-Israel travel could flourish could be described as optimistic or even naive. The UAE normalized with Israel in 2020 with the Abraham Accords signed in the US.
At the time, it was hoped this signing could boost both trade and tourism. But in reality, the number of Gulf tourists in Israel has been almost nothing.
Last year, more than half a million Israelis flew into Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but just 1,600 Emirati citizens have visited Israel since it lifted travel restrictions in 2022, the Israeli Tourism Ministry told The Associated Press at the start of this year.
For Bahraini travelers, whose country also signed the Abraham Accords, the ministry said “the visitor numbers are too small” to measure.
“It’s still a very weird and sensitive situation,” said Morsi Hija, head of the forum for Arabic-speaking tour guides in Israel. “The Emiratis feel like they’ve done something wrong in coming here.”
In Dubai, tourism from Israel is more robust. It stands as the emirate’s tenth-largest source market with 209,000 travelers up to July of this year.
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Photo credit: Israel Tourism Minister Haim Katz in Saudi Arabia Credit: Reuters