Two years after Abraham Accords, Israel promotes joint travel packages with the UAE

Visiting Israel and the Emirates on one trip is attractive to U.S. tourists because it consolidates the travel time needed for a transatlantic vacation

Loop Images via Getty Images

Loop Images via Getty Images

Dune bashing in the Dubai desert

Planning a trip to Israel but already familiar with all the most-visited holy sites and tourist attractions? Now, veteran and new visitors to the country can add a once-unthinkable dimension to their trip: an additional stop in Dubai or Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.

Taking advantage of the warmed ties brought on by the Abraham Accords – and the short three-hour flight from Tel Aviv to the Gulf – Israel’s Ministry of Tourism announced last week that it is ramping up its marketing of two-country travel packages, Israel-UAE, for U.S. tourists, with a focus on luring the Jewish community.

Boosting tourism was named as an explicit goal as part of the effort to advance political and economic cooperation between the countries party to the September 2020 normalization agreements. The foreign ministers of Israel, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and the UAE, as well as U.S. Secretary of State Tony Blinken, also discussed attracting more tourists during the Negev Summit earlier this year.

Over the past two years, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Israeli tourists have flocked not just to the UAE, but also to Bahrain and Morocco.

“The Abraham Accords opened a new scope and a new opportunity that helps us to galvanize our relationships in the region, and an aspect of that is also the option to have tourism packages together,” Kobby Barda, deputy general director of Israel’s Tourism Ministry, told The Circuit last week.

Barda said the concept of visiting Israel and the UAE during one combined trip would especially benefit U.S. tourists because, he noted, most transatlantic visitors spend more days traveling to the region than travelers coming from Europe because the journey takes longer.

“It’s like if we [Israelis] visit the United States and decide to travel between the East Coast and West Coast or something of that nature,” Barda pointed out. “It just gives tourists wider leisure and travel options.”

While Israel’s Ministry of Tourism has a weighty marketing budget of some $100 million per year to promote travel to Israel, but it does not sell travel packages. Roughly $2 million of the ministry’s budget, Barda said, targets tourism options with, and in, the UAE – working to sell the concept to local tour operators and coordinating between Israel’s national airline, El Al, and Emirati carriers. The effort extends to several of the ministry’s North America offices: New York, Atlanta, Chicago and Los Angeles.

Since the signing of the Accords, the ministry’s U.S. operation has conducted webinars with hundreds of travel agents in North America and held in-person events in New York and Toronto. In November, the ministry will participate in the annual conference of the United States Tour Operators Association, where it will hold a joint event with representatives from Abu Dhabi and Dubai.

Barda told The Circuit that while the financial investment in developing tourism options with the UAE was high, it was not “solely about the money” or the return on investment. Working together with a country that until two years ago had no diplomatic ties with Israel and promoting this new partnership was important for diplomatic reasons too, he said.

Strengthening Israel’s new ties with the UAE notwithstanding, Barda also said the concept of a joint Israeli-UAE tourism package would be valuable for the American Jewish community.

“With evangelical Christians, their focus is on the Bible and Israel, but when you go to a liberal Jewish audience, the coexistence, the cooperation and the establishment of a relationship between what was just a fantasy a few years ago, is very appealing,” he said. “If you’ve already decided to cross the Atlantic, then you are probably going to opt for a longer vacation, so how about combining it together with a trip that will allow you to see the strong relations that have been developing between the UAE and Israel?”

Eyal Carlin, who serves as Israel’s tourism commissioner to North America and who has overseen the development of the Israel-UAE travel package since its inception, said, however, that it had been well-received by both Jewish and non-Jewish groups in the U.S. 

“I know of operators who sell Israel as a destination for Christian groups and who have now added the UAE to their trips,” he told The Circuit. Although he said he could not provide exact figures of how many people this past summer had opted for the two-country trek, overall tourism from the U.S. to Israel increased by 4% in July, compared to 2019 – the last figures before the COVID-19 lockdowns.

Carlin said the idea to market Israel and the UAE as a joint travel destination arose not long after the Accords, but the implementation of the marketing plan was slowed due to COVID-19 restrictions on travel.

“Once the agreements were signed, the Emirates were very eager to work together with us,” he said, explaining how, based on its success so far, Israel would also begin exploring similar options with other regional countries, including Morocco and Bahrain, as well as Cyprus and Greece.

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