Israel Freezes Plans for New Turkish Air Link, Citing Security Fears

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Turkish protesters outside the Israeli ambassador's residence in Ankara, July 20, 2014.Credit: AP

The damage to Israeli tourism from Operation Protective Edge was spreading rapidly yesterday, with Israel suspending the opening of new routes to Turkey, another airline cancelling flights to Israel and the hotel industry estimating that losses would reach 425 million shekels ($124 million).

The Israel Airports Authority said it had suspended any further movement toward renewing flights with Turkey until 2015, citing the risks to Israeli travelers in Turkey and hostile comments made toward Israel in recent days by its prime minister, Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

“The Israeli market to Turkey is about to shrink dramatically because of the situation. Security problems seem to me today to be a lot bigger than in the past, and so I’ve decided to suspend the matter,” said Giora Rom, IAA’s director.

Turkey had been a prime destination for Israeli travelers until the May 2010 Mavi Marmara incident (when nine Turkish activists were shot to death while trying to break the Gaza siege by boat). More recently, travel had begun picking up, with some 715,600 people flying to Turkey from Israel in the first half of 2014, a 61% increase from a year earlier.

But last week Erdogan accused Israel of having “surpassed Hitler in barbarism” through its attacks on Gaza. Israel’s Foreign Ministry said Saturday that Israelis should “avoid nonessential visits” to Turkey, or be especially vigilant and steer clear of anti-Israel demonstrations.

Even before the IAA announcement, KTA International – which represents Turkish charter airlines in Israel – reported a sharp increase in cancelled reservations. “The situation is awful. A wave of cancellations has started that we can’t even measure exactly for the long term … At this stage we’re dealing with cancellations for the coming week,” said Shai Pardo, its CEO.

Incoming travel, meanwhile, took a small hit after Norwegian Air Shuttle became the second carrier to suspend flights to Israel, following Korean Air.

Norwegian, a low-cost carrier that flew 30,000 travelers to Israel in the first half of the year, didn’t formally acknowledge it was suspending flights because of the fighting. However, foreign airlines customarily do not make such statements but make do with cancelling flights.

Worries about flying to Israel may be growing after a Malaysian Airlines flight was shot down last Thursday over the conflict zone in Ukraine, even though it was flying on an approved route.

Ben-Gurion International Airport has been operating normally, albeit with delays, with some 63,500 passengers scheduled to pass through it on the way to and from some 406 scheduled flights. However, the IAA advised airlines to give their jets an extra 30 minutes’ worth of fuel in the event that the security situation forces them to delay landing.

Meanwhile, the Israel Hotel Association estimated that Protective Edge would cost its members 340 million shekels in revenue from overseas tourists and 85 million shekels from the loss of Israeli business (first reported in Sunday’s Haaretz).

The IHA said that while cancellations in the first round of fighting were limited principally to the south, they have spread north to include key tourist destinations like Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. The ground incursion that began at the end of last week has made matters worse.

“Even before the entrance into Gaza we saw a big drop in occupancy rates and now … the situation is worsening. The sector is on its way to collapse,” said Eli Gonen, the IHA’s president. “Hotels in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem are supposed to be 80% full right now, but today the occupancy rate is about 40%. A lot of business people cancelled.”

The hotel industry had been forecasting 2.4 million overnight stays in the prime third quarter – 10% up from last year. Right now, the estimate is that there will be 840,000 fewer stays, which is a loss of about $100 million.