Israelis Are Flocking to Istanbul, and Erdogan Couldn't Be Happier

The number of Israeli businesspeople and vacationers flooding Turkey last year was the highest in a decade – and it is now the No. 1 destination for Israeli Arabs

Turkey's President Recep Tayyip Erdogan drives a car during inauguration of a new airport in Istanbul, Oct. 29, 2018
Emrah Gurel/AP

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s recent verbal assaults on Israel have not stemmed the tide of the mounting number of Israeli businesspeople and other tourists traveling to his country. In fact, the number of those visitors arriving there last year was the highest in a decade: Some 440,000 Israeli entered the country, according to Turkey's Tourism Ministry. This constitutes a 16% increase over 2017. In general, the number of Israelis visiting Turkey doubled within three years, not counting layovers there to other destinations.

However, there has been a significant change in the sort of Israelis traveling to Turkey: If a decade ago, most were Jewish Israelis visiting the Antalya resort area, today they are most likely to be Israeli Arabs – and their favored destination is Istanbul.

In fact, Turkey is now the No. 1 travel destination for Israeli Arabs. An estimated 70-90% of all Israelis visiting the country for business or leisure are Arabs who are attracted by its proximity and low prices.

“Jews still remember the murderous 2016 terror attack in Istanbul, and aren’t hurrying to return,” said a senior Israeli tourism official. "A suicide bomber targeting Jews isn’t something that’s quickly forgotten.”

Some 410,000 Israelis landed in Turkey between January and November 2018, a 15% increase from the parallel period of 2017, and a 47% increase from 2016.

Izzy Madam – CEO of Izzy Travel, which is part of the Signal Tours group that specializes in Israeli Arab tourism – says Turkey started gaining popularity as a destination for his clients when the Arab Spring broke out in 2010, forcing tourists to abandon Sinai and find other locations.

“Before the security situation changed, there were travel agencies sending two or three bus loads to Sinai every day,” Madam recalled, noting that Turkey was less attractive back then, since a vacation in Sharm el-Sheikh cost one-quarter of the price and didn't involve boarding a plane.

“When that destination was taken off the map, our clientele discovered Turkey, a Muslim country that received them beautifully, with excellent food," he said. The flow of tourists from Israeli Arab communities "developed slowly, and gained traction by word of mouth, until reaching the heavy traffic we see today."

Tourists pose for photographs in front of a giant Turkish national flag in the Sultanahmet district of Istanbul, Turkey, Aug. 11, 2016.
Kerem Uzel/Bloomberg

Sinai and Jordan less tempting

Ala Afifi, one of the CEOs of Nazrin Tours, another leading tourism company for those communities, confirms that fewer people are visiting Sinai. “In the past, Israeli Arabs would travel to Sinai and Jordan,” he said, but tourism to the former destination has since dropped precipitously – “from crazy quantities of tourists to almost nothing,”

Sinai remains a very cheap destination, added Afifi, "but because of the security situation, people have been put off from traveling there. Jordan, in comparison, is expensive.”

In Jordan, his clients are not "traveling to Aqaba or Petra, which are relatively inexpensive – those areas don’t interest them as much, and maybe 10% of our travelers go there. They primarily go to Amman, which is more expensive. They stay at a hotel, and the added value isn’t worth the money,” said Afifi.

Israeli tourism to Turkey peaked in 2008 with 558,000 entries, but collapsed amid worsening diplomatic relations. The tipping point was in 2010 with the Mavi Marmara incident, when a Turkish flotilla attempting to break the blockade of the Gaza Strip was stopped by Israeli soldiers, and nine activists aboard sguo were killed in the ensuing violence. In 2011 and 2012, Turkey reported that only 80,000 Israelis landed on their shores, according to their figures.

Amid the subsequent bilateral tensions, Jewish Israelis stopped visiting Turkey almost entirely, and Arab Israelis still did not fill their place. The change evolved as Israelis in general began flying abroad more. Previously, Israeli Arabs didn’t go abroad much, but that changed about five years ago. Now, said a tourism official, Arabs have been flying abroad in numbers that are disproportionately high with respect to their percentage of the population.

“Like all Israelis, the Arab community has started flying more,” said Nir Mazor, head of marketing at Kishrey Teufa. “If once they went abroad once a year, now they travel three times a year.”

A Turkish Airlines plane landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport in Israel, in 2013.
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Flights to Turkey are both frequent and inexpensive. Turkish airlines have caught on to the potential for offering flights between Israel and destinations further afield. Today Turkish Airlines alone has nine flights daily between Ben-Gurion International Airport and Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport. Chalking up 1.1 million passengers from Israel, Turkish Airlines is the country's largest foreign carrier: Some 90% of those Israelis use Ataturk as a hub en route to countries in North America or the Far East; of the 10% who remain in Turkey, a large majority are Israeli Arabs.

Pegasus and Atlas, the other two Turkish carriers, together offer more than 20 flights to and from Turkey each week. Currently, the flight to Istanbul from Ben-Gurion costs about $150.

Turkey has also become a more attractive destination due to the weakening of its lira over the past year, travel agents noted.

“It’s cheaper to travel there, and shopping, restaurants and hotels have become better deals,” Afifi said. “For years Istanbul was not considered to be cheap, but now with the currency situation, it’s a great deal for a weekend trip. You can eat well, shop cheaply, see a few historical sites and return home.”

In fact, it is cheaper to go to Turkey than Eilat, according to Jamal Hijazi, owner of Universal Tours. For the price of a four-night stay in Eilat, he said, one can fly to Istanbul or Antalya.

Hijazi: “Last month the Arab sector was on vacation during Christmas and New Year's. Prices in Eilat were sky-high, and the quality of hotels at the Dead Sea has been declining every year, so people no longer go there either,” he said, adding that other alternatives in Israel are even more expensive, and Greece isn’t a good alternative. Good hotels there are more expensive than in Turkey, plus people tend to visit the island once and not return.

“Turkey, in comparison, draws visitors year after year because it’s a country that is developing its tourism industry, and there are always new attractions,” Hijazi said.

Despite the significant amount of outgoing Israeli tourism heading to Turkey, the proportion of Israelis traveling to that country as compared to other tourists is minimal: Israelis account for only 1.1% of Turkey’s 39.5 million incoming tourists.

On the subject of Israeli Jewish and Arab tourism, Afifi noted that the two groups book different types of trips, in general: “Arabs prefer tours organized for their communities, which have less of a focus on family 'roots' trips. Jews, for instance, will go to Azerbaijan, only visit Baku, and look for synagogues and kosher food. Arabs don't go for 'tradition-seeking' travel; they prefer to see natural sites and go shopping.”

As consumers, Israel Arabs are also more loyal to their local travel agents, says one industry member. This makes it easier for them to pay in cash, he noted. Jewish Israelis, on the other hand, often make their reservations directly with low-cost airlines or online.

Younger Israeli Arabs are more likely to book trips online and pay with credit cards, but sometimes, Afifi said, they go online only to check out the prices – and then go to a local travel agent to negotiate. Most of his customers, he said, prefer to pay cash.