Following the normalization agreement of June 2016 and the exchange of ambassadors in late 2016, certain aspects of Turkish-Israeli relations are on the road to improvement. Turkish Culture and Tourism Minister Nabi Avcı visited Israel from February 7-8 for an annual international tourism exhibition (the International Mediterranean Tourism Market – IMTM). It was the first Turkish ministerial visit to Israel in seven years, and Turkey participated in this exhibition after four years of absence.
Avcı used his visit to promote Israeli tourism to Turkey and to facilitate Turkish travel to Israel. Avcı said, “There were 260,000 Israelis who visited Turkey last year and I think it is possible to raise the number to 600,000 as it was in previous years.” In this quote, the minister was referring to the number of Israeli tourists recorded in Turkey in 2008. However, following the Israeli operation in Gaza in late 2008 and the aftermath of the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident, the number of Israeli tourists declined substantially. During these years of crisis (2010-2016), most of the Israelis traveling on vacation to Turkey were Arab citizens of Israel, which was not the case prior to 2008. In 2012, the number of tourists dropped to their lowest level in recent years. Nonetheless, it should be noted that Turkey did not reinstate visa requirements for Israelis traveling to Turkey during these years of crisis. As relations between the states normalized, from 2015 to 2016, there was indeed a notable increase of at least 30 percent more Israeli tourists visiting Turkey. That being said, it seems unlikely that the 2008 numbers will replicate themselves in the near future.
There are several reasons why a full return to the pre-2008 figures is unlikely in the short term. First, the rising number of terror attacks in Turkey has hurt tourism. Since March 2016, the Israeli National Security Council Counter-Terrorism Bureau issued the second highest travel alert (“High concrete threat”) for Israelis considering traveling to Turkey. The elevated travel alert was the result of the İstiklal Avenue terror attack that month, in which the largest number of casualties were tourists from Israel. While it was never definitively proven that the suicide bomber explicitly targeted the Israeli group, there was nevertheless concern that this was indeed the case. Another Israeli tourist was killed in the Reina night club attack during the 2017 New Year celebration. In a poll conducted ahead of the IMTM fair, 52 percent of Israelis polled said they were afraid to travel to cities in which terror attacks occurred during the past year, including Berlin, Paris, and Istanbul. Still, despite the Istanbul Atatürk Airport terror attack of June 2016, Turkish Airlines remained the most popular foreign carrier from Ben Gurion Airport in terms of its number of passengers in 2016, second only to Israeli carrier El Al. There are currently 98 scheduled flights each week between Tel Aviv and Istanbul. Most Israelis, however, only use Istanbul as a point for transit for other destinations.
The second reason that a return to the pre-2008 numbers remains unlikely is that the Mavi Marmara incident sowed residual feelings of distrust and hostility between the states. In the poll ahead of the IMTM fair, no respondent mentioned Turkey as their preferred tourist destination. In another poll following Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s apology in 2013 to then Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, half the respondents said they do not plan to vacation in Turkey in the near future because of the tense atmosphere between the two countries. Lastly, the expansion of low cost air travel following aviation agreements between Israel and the European Union in 2013, and with additional countries, has expanded the previously limited range of affordable travel opportunities for Israelis. Still, many Israeli tourists continue to fly to nearby destinations: around 400,000 vacationed in Greece in 2015 and more than 150,000 vacationed in the Republic of Cyprus in 2016.
The Turkish minister’s visit also raised awareness of the growing number of Turkish tourists coming to Israel. He stated that 30,000 Turkish tourists came to Israel last year. He urged more Turks to visit the al-Aqsa mosque in Jerusalem. While the numbers are still low, in recent years there has been a general increase in the number of Muslim tourists coming to Israel for religious purposes. While Israelis do not need a visa to travel to Turkey, Turkish citizens need a visa to travel to Israel. During the political consultations between the Turkish and Israeli foreign ministry delegations in Ankara in January 2017, the issue of mutual visa waivers was raised. However, it is likely that due to security concerns, Israel will find it difficult to completely lift the visa requirements for Turkish citizens. Moreover, even if Israel does make the process easier, there is still likely to be problems at the Ben Gurion Airport for Turks arriving and departing, as such incidents have already occurred in recent years.
During his visit, Avcı inaugurated the Turkish cultural center in Jaffa in the renovated former Ottoman governor’s building. Funded by the Turkish government, the renovation was completed in 2008, but the deterioration in relations delayed its opening. The Turkish government also completed the renovation of the Grand Synagogue of Edirne in 2015.These two projects are a reminder that in the distant future, reciprocal Israeli-Turkish tourism can be expanded well beyond the usual attractions. In the short term however, security concerns and the unease from the crisis years remain obstacles.
Dr. Gallia Lindenstrauss is a research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS). gallia[at]inss.org.il
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