More than a few Israelis are waiting for the chance to fly to Dubai or Abu Dhabi and stay at one the Emirates’ super-luxury hotels for their next vacation abroad. Israel’s Tourism Ministry is hoping the tourist traffic won’t be one-way.
Ministry officials say that when the coronavirus restrictions on air travel end, they see the potential to bring as many as 100,000 tourists a year from the United Arab Emirates.
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More than the headline number, which is relatively small compared to the 4.55 million tourists who visited Israel last year, is the great spending power of tourists coming from the UAE: They spend an average of $2,000 to $20,000 per traveler when vacationing abroad.
The ministry doesn’t expect 100,000 visitors from the UAE immediately. It forecasts 20,000 in the first year of post-pandemic tourism, 50,000 the next and 80,000 in the third year, before the full potential is reached.
The ministry is budgeting $1 million a year to UAE tourism, to be spent on training tour guides about Islam, increasing the number of Arabic-speaking guides and sponsoring culturally sensitive training for hotel workers.
The allocation will also go toward marketing, participating in travel and tourism fairs, holding focus groups and bringing travel agents, journalists and other opinion leaders to Israel.
The UAE’s population is just 9.6 million, not much more than Israel’s. But residents are inveterate travelers. It’s among the top 20 countries in the world for travel spending, with combined spending of $17.1 billion in 2016, according to a Tourism Ministry study.
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At about $70,400, the UAE is seventh in the world for per capita gross domestic product and the figure has been growing in recent years at 3% annually. Surveys have found that 48% of UAE residents prefer to stay in five-star hotels when traveling; an additional 32% say they choose four-star accommodations.
Men tend to travel more than women, by a ratio of 73% to 27%. Young people travel more than older people, and one-third of vacationers have at least an undergraduate degree. They are also frequent travelers, with half the country’s population going abroad at least once a year, 26% twice a year and the rest three or more times annually. Each trip is two to six weeks on average.
Because the great majority of the UAE’s population consists of noncitizens, two-thirds of foreign travel is to visit friend and family abroad. Another quarter of foreign travel is for business, although there is a growing tendency toward so-called bleisure travel, combining business and leisure. About 10% is for religious, medical, sport and other reasons.
A Tourism Ministry study found that the main attraction for UAE residents to travel to Israel would be because it is something new and relatively close by (2,100 kilometers as the crow flies). Israel also offers an attractive climate, compared with the UAE’s, as well historical, cultural and religious sites. Medical and sport-related travel are also likely to draw UAE residents.
Business travel, it believes, will focus on the high-tech sector. The presence of so many Arabic speakers as well as food that meets Muslim dietary requirements will be another draw, the ministry believes.
Not surprisingly, the main obstacle facing Israel is the continued conflict with the Palestinians and other Arab states. The Tourism Ministry fears that many Emiratis will feel insecure visiting Israel or be treated disrespectfully, starting with strict security checks when they land at Ben-Gurion International Airport.
Another problem is the standard of tourism services in Israel. UAE residents are used to hotels of the highest standards at relatively affordable prices. In Israel, by contrast, “hotel prices are high in return for which standards and service are low.”