Israeli Arabs push their country’s visitors to Turkey to 10-year high

The number of Israeli visitors to Turkey increased sharply last year, marking the highest visitor numbers from the country in a decade thanks mainly to Israeli Arabs, Israeli newspaper Haaretz reported on Tuesday.

Some 440,000 Israelis entered Turkey in 2018, according to Turkey's Tourism Ministry, which represents a 16 percent increase over 2017 and a doubling of visitors in three years.

Yet these are different Israelis than in the past. “If a decade ago, most were Jewish Israelis visiting the Antalya resort area, today they are most likely to be Israeli Arabs, and their favoured destination is Istanbul,” said the paper. “In fact, Turkey is now the No. 1 travel destination for Israeli Arabs.”

As many as 90 percent of all Israelis visiting Turkey for business or leisure are Arabs, said Haaretz. One issue for Jewish Israelis is the 2016 terror attack in Istanbul, which targeted Jews. “A suicide bomber targeting Jews isn’t something that’s quickly forgotten,” a senior Israeli tourism official told Haaretz.

But the trouble started long before then. “Israeli tourism to Turkey peaked in 2008 with 558,000 entries, but collapsed amid worsening diplomatic relations,” said Haaretz. “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 were killed in the ensuing violence.”

In 2011 and 2012, only 80,000 Israelis visit Turkey, according to Turkish figures. Around that time, Israeli Arabs started flying abroad more. “Like all Israelis, the Arab community has started flying more,” Nir Mazor, head of marketing at Kishrey Teufa, told Haaretz. “If once they went abroad once a year, now they travel three times a year.”

Izzy Madam, CEO of Izzy Travel, which specialises in Israeli Arab tourism, said Turkey started gaining popularity for his clients after Arab spring protests broke out in 2010, forcing tourists to abandon Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula and find other destinations.

Flights to Turkey are frequent and inexpensive. Turkish Airlines alone has nine flights daily between Ben-Gurion International Airport and Istanbul’s Ataturk Airport.

Pegasus and Atlas, two Turkish carriers, together fly more than 20 flights to and from Turkey each week. Usually, a round-trip flight to Istanbul from Ben-Gurion costs about $150.

“Before the security situation changed, there were travel agencies sending two or three bus loads to Sinai every day,” Madam recalled, adding that a trip to Sharm el-Sheikh cost one-quarter of the price of Turkey and did not involve a flight. “When that destination was taken off the map, our clientele discovered Turkey, a Muslim country that received them beautifully, with excellent food," said Madam.

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

“For years Istanbul was not considered to be cheap, but now with the currency situation, it’s a great deal for a weekend trip,” said Ala Afifi of Nazrin Tours. “You can eat well, shop cheaply, see a few historical sites and return home.”

It is cheaper to go to Turkey than the Israeli resort town of 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. He also said Greece was a poor alternative because hotels are expensive and tourists tend to visit an 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 told Haaretz.

Despite the increase, Israelis account for just over 1 percent of Turkey’s 39.5 million foreign tourist visitors.