Turkey Quickly Regaining Status as Major Vacation Spot for Israelis

Israelis tourists have begun returning in droves to Mediterranean resort city of Antalya following thaw in Turkish-Israeli relations, but the number is still well-below its 2008 peak.

Turkish resort city Antalya has returned to the top of the vacation destinations favored by Israelis this summer, after dropping precipitously after the Mavi Marmara affair in 2010. A senior tourism industry source estimates that some 50,000 Israelis will have holidayed in Antalya this July and August, compared to just 10,000 during the same period in 2012.

The Mavi Marama was a Turkish-owned ship stormed by IDF forces on May 31, 2010, after trying to break Israel's naval blockade of Gaza. Nine Turkish activists were killed in the violent confrontation aboard the ship, leading to a sharp deterioration in relations between Israel and Turkey. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu apologized for the deaths in March this year, during a phone conversation with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

"Turkey is the number three vacation destination for Israelis this summer, ahead of Cyprus, [the Greek island of] Kos and Malta, while last year it came in at the bottom of the top 10,” says Ronen Carasso, vice-president for marketing at leading Israeli travel company Issta Lines Group

“Following reconciliation talks with Turkey and the thawing of relations between the two countries, a movement of Israeli vacationers to Turkey began with the Passover [spring] vacation,” Carasso said. He estimated that 180,000 Israelis will have flown to Turkey by the end of 2013.

Tailwind Airlines, a Turkish charter airline, announced Monday that it would start operating a route from Israel's Ben-Gurion International Airport to Antalya. The company will fill the place left by Turkish company, Sky Airlines, which halted all flights, including to Israel, this June following the collapse of its parent company, the Kayi Group. Tailwind is expected to offer three weekly flights to Antalya, an increase over the two flights offered by Sky Airlines.

Nevertheless, the number of Israelis heading to Antalya is still far from what it was in 2008, the peak year for Israeli tourism to Turkey, when more than half-a-million Israelis visited the country. “Greece is still more in demand than Antalya,” says Dana Lavie, Marketing VP for Daka 90 travel deal website. According to Lavie, Crete is the number one destination among users of the site, followed by Rhodes. Antalya is third, followed by Burgos in Bulgaria. “Perhaps its because of the terror attack [in Burgos] last year, but Antalya has passed Burgos this year in the number of Israeli vacationers and it isn’t far behind the number of vacationers who went to Rhodes this year,” she says.

Lilach and Roi Hamami from Mazkeret Batya are among the travelers who decided to spend their summer vacation in Antalya, with their two daughters and members of their extended family. “We are fans of Turkey,” says Lilach. ”We traveled there every year for the past eight years, except for last year, when we chose Rhodes after my husband said he wasn't prepared to take the risk. Even now, he is prepared just to travel and stay in the hotel, but not to go out and tour the region.”

In contrast to her husband, Lilach feels safe in Turkey. “I wasn't afraid,” she says. “I believe that the tension between the countries doesn't affect the people, just the government.”

Elinor Zucker from Eilat, who went on vacation with her extended family to Turkey this July, seems to agree. “We were in Antalya many times in the past,” she says. “Several weeks after the apology, right when the deals came out, we reserved a vacation package. The Turks received us in a wonderful fashion; we weren't afraid for a moment.”

David Bachar