Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said on Sunday that last week's inauguration of Air India direct flights to Israel over Saudi Arabia creates "huge" potential for Israel with "significant" and "long-term implications."
"The significance is clear to everyone," the prime minister said at his weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, adding that the implications, which he called "of the first degree," have economic and diplomatic implications as well an impact relating to tourism and technology.
The developments, he said, have taken time to ripen. "I think the long-term implications of this will become clear later, but at the moment, I don't think we need to speak too much beyond what I have said here, to make these developments possible."
Air India's inaugural flight to Tel Aviv's Ben-Gurion airport took off from New Delhi on Thursday, flying over Saudi Arabia and Persian Gulf states, countries with which Israel has no diplomatic relations. The flight landed shortly after 10 P.M. and was expected to take off again for India at 11:15 that night.
Overflying Saudi Arabia considerably shortened flight times between Israel and India.
El Al flies four weekly flights to Mumbai, but these take seven hours rather than five as they fly south toward Ethiopia and then east to India, avoiding Saudi airspace. El Al had said it would try and also seek a permission to fly over Saudi Arabia.
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The flagship Israeli carrier has previously requested international help in gaining access to Saudi airspace. Earlier Thursday when Air India's maiden flight took off, Israeli Tourism Minister Yariv Levin confirmed the clear concerns of El Al over unfair competition. In an interview to Army Radio, Levin disclosed that negotiations were underway with airlines from the Philippines and Singapore to persuade them to fly to Israel directly over Saudi Arabia.
Airline industry officials believe that now, after Air India’s first flight over Saudi Arabia, other countries will try to obtain similar permits and open new routes to Israel. This is particularly true in light of the grants the Tourism Ministry is giving for every new route that opens between Israel and new destinations.
The Tourism Ministry now expects a significant jump in the number of visitors from India; with the launching of regular flights from Delhi, Air India is to receive a grant of 750,000 euros; every weekly flight from Delhi (from which there were previously no flights to Israel) would grant Air India 250,000 euros.
According to an incoming tourism survey, Indian tourists spend an average of 6.2 nights in Israel and each person spends approximately $1066 per visit. Market research by the Tourism Ministry also shows that more than 350 million people in India consider Israel the ideal of the “start-up nation,” and a leading country in the culinary, wine and lifestyle categories.
Recent years have seen a continual rise in the number of visitors to Israel from India. In 2014 the figure was 34,000 and in 2016 it rose to 44,500. Last year the number spiked by 23.2 percent to 58,000. In 2018 so far the trend has continued, with 33 percent more visitors from India in January and February than the same period in 2017.
Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz said following Thursday’s Air India landing from Delhi: “This is a historic evening. The skies of Israel are linked to the skies of Saudi Arabia by one direct flight. We celebrate this evening the strengthening of ties with India and the first civil connection with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States.”
Katz also said that when Israel’s Open Skies agreement was signed with the European Union “we didn’t dare dream of opening the open skies above Arab countries.” Katz said the next project he would be leading would be a train line “connecting Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States and Jordan to the Haifa Bay and the Mediterranean for the good of the region and the Israeli economy.”