One of Europe’s largest airlines, Ryanair, announced at a press conference Tuesday it will start flying to Israel. Flights will connect Eilat’s Ovda Airport to Budapest, Hungary; Krakow, Poland; and Kaunas, Lithuania, and are expected to have a significant impact on Israel’s economy, tourism industry and international image – and lower the cost of air travel to Europe for Israelis.
“It’s not just seats in planes,” said Yariv Levin, Israel’s minister of tourism. “It’s much more.”
Ovda Airport is about 60 kilometers (37 miles) north of the southern resort town of Eilat.
Ireland’s Ryanair operates out of 74 airports in 31 countries and carried 100 million passengers last year. It is also the Continent’s cheapest airline, with the average ticket costing only €47.
The company sees an opportunity in expanding its coverage to Eilat. There are currently no direct commercial flights there from outside of Israel, said David O’Brien, Ryanair’s chief commercial officer. Meanwhile, central Europe is experiencing a growing demand for leisure vacations, partly due to the area’s decreasing unemployment rate. So far, most of these tourists have traveled to Morocco and the Canary Islands, but Eilat is closer to all cities east of Berlin than these locations, O’Brien said.
Ryanair, which recently marked its 30th anniversary, is expected to bring 40,000 travelers a year to Eilat on six weekly flights, and these tourists are expected to spend $20 million dollars in Israel. The airline’s service to Gran Canaria, a similar destination near the coast of Morocco, brings 10 million tourists and $5 billion a year to the area.
The airline is also considering flights to Tel Aviv. O’Brien compared the city to Dublin, saying both countries have large diaspora populations and both are essentially island nations because accessing Israel by land is so difficult. Tel Aviv is 50% larger than Dublin but has less than half as many tourists per capita.
Tel Aviv is a less appealing destination than Eilat for the company right now because it is more expensive and has a longer turnaround time for planes which the airline could use elsewhere, O’Brien said.
One future possibility is flights connecting Tel Aviv to Cyprus, O’Brien said.
The airline acknowledges the security situation in Israel and its potential to hurt business, but believes the risk is worth it.
“There are commercial risks and there are physical risks everywhere. Israel seems like a relatively stable environment,” O’Brien said. “We don’t see any particular issue.”
Israeli tourists will also benefit from the new service. Ryanair only operates point to point flights without any further connections, O’Brien said, but Israeli travelers could transfer from Budapest, Krakow or Kaunas to other destinations.
The move comes at a crucial time for Israeli tourism, with the Tourism Ministry currently trying to make Israel more of an international destination, Levin said.
“I think we have here in Israel the best potential that we could think about, from the sun and the sea in Eilat to the holy places,” Levin said. “I think it’s about time that Israel reaches the number of tourists that it should bring here. It’s important for our economy, and it’s important for our people.”
Ryanair is holding a sale for the new flights from Wednesday, July 8, until Friday, July 10. Customers can buy tickets for flights in November and December for €29.99.