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Israel promotes tourism in Dubai, even amid ongoing conflict with Gaza

‘We are talking about the future,’ says Tourism Ministry official at UAE Travel Market. ‘This escalation, it will finish one day’

Israeli exhibitors receive visitors at their stand on the opening day of the Arabian Travel Market exhibition, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)
Israeli exhibitors receive visitors at their stand on the opening day of the Arabian Travel Market exhibition, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

As the Israel-Gaza conflict continued, it was business as usual for a senior Israeli tourism official in Dubai as she promoted the country as a must-see destination for Muslim visitors.

It might seem an odd proposition at an odd time, given that major airlines have suspended flights to Israel amid the flare-up in violence and while the spread of coronavirus remains a threat.

But at Dubai’s Arabian Travel Market on Sunday, billed as the first travel and tourism event to happen in person since the global coronavirus outbreak, a small Israeli booth — tucked behind Slovenia’s — marketed the country as the “Land of Creation.” Promotional videos advertised Israel’s vegan culinary scene, its beaches and urged: “Book Your Trip Now” to Tel Aviv.

And the barrages of rocket fire on Israel, and the devastating airstrikes on Gaza leading the world’s television news?

“We were not talking about it. We are talking about the future. We are talking about what we can do to bring tourism to Israel,” said Ksenia Kobiakov, director of new markets development at the Israeli Tourism Ministry.

The presence of Israel at the travel and tourism event in Dubai highlights the United Arab Emirates’ business-first approach and demonstrates how rapidly ties with Israel have developed since the UAE and Israel signed an accord to formalize ties in September. It also signals how even the most brutal conflicts between Israel and the Palestinians are no longer viewed by some Gulf Arab leaders through a prism of Muslim or Arab solidarity, but as part of a wider calculation in a region gripped by multiple threats.

A man passes by the Israel stand on the opening day of the Arabian Travel Market exhibition, in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, Sunday, May 16, 2021. (AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili)

Israel’s tourism minister was scheduled to attend a panel at the conference on Gulf-Israeli tourism, but the panel was quietly renamed and her visit to Dubai did not transpire. Israeli tourism officials say the minister’s visit was never approved by the prime minister and the cancellation had nothing to do with the current fighting.

The first plane of Israeli tourists to the UAE landed in November. Since then, the UAE has welcomed tens of thousands of Israelis to its sandy beaches and marbled malls, with most flocking to Dubai.

Kobiakov said the hope is that Emirati citizens and foreign residents of the UAE will visit Israel in return and help its tourism sector rebound when the country is open again to tourists.

“We came here to show Israel as a new destination for the UAE and Gulf countries, as a very colorful, exciting destination that is open,” Kobiakov said.

In all her discussions with tour operators, airlines and others in Dubai on Sunday, the focus was on tourism and not politics, she said. There was no discussion of the current flare-up in violence in Israel and the Gaza Strip.

A plan to open visa-free travel between the two countries was delayed due to Israeli quarantine rules. The UAE and Israel, which have had some of the world’s most successful vaccination drives against the coronavirus, are on track to sign the visa-exemption agreement on July 1, Kobiakov said.

The current round of violence could impact Israel’s plans to lure back tourists, particularly its effort to appeal to Emirati and Bahraini citizens and not just potential investors or officials from these countries. Violence around the Temple Mount in East Jerusalem last week drew a rare rebuke of Israel by both countries, which signed accords recognizing Israel last year.

A ball of fire erupts from a building in Gaza City’s al-Rima neighborhood on May 16, 2021, during a massive Israeli bombardment on the Hamas-controlled enclave. (Bashar Taleb/AFP)

According to the Hamas-run Gaza health ministry, 200 Palestinians have died since the beginning of the fighting, 59 of them children. Israel has said it does not target civilians, and that many of the dead were terrorists or killed by errant Hamas rockets. Ten people in Israel, including a 5-year-old boy and a 16-year-old girl, have been killed in the rocket fire, and hundreds have been injured.

Over 3,000 rockets have been fired at Israel since the outbreak of fighting, according to the Israel Defense Forces. Israel in turn, has struck hundreds of targets in Gaza, including some of Gaza City’s tallest office and residential buildings, alleging they contain Hamas military infrastructure. Among them was the building housing The Associated Press office and those of other media outlets; Israel warned occupants before striking the building, which it said was used by Hamas. AP has demanded an independent investigation into the strike.

Mob violence had also roiled between Israel’s Jewish and Arab communities over the past week, turning cities into veritable war zones, with police failing to contain the most serious internal unrest to grip the country in years.

Violence in the West Bank has also increased amid rising Israeli-Palestinian tensions centered on Jerusalem, setting off the worst flare-up of fighting in seven years.

The Iron Dome missile defense system in operation against rockets fired from the Gaza Strip, May 15, 2021 (Avi Roccah/Flash90)

The UAE’s foreign minister stopped short of directly criticizing Israel in the most recent statement issued Friday. Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed instead called “on all parties to take immediate steps to commit to a ceasefire, initiate a political dialogue, and exercise maximum restraint.”

On the sprawling premises of Dubai’s tourism event, Kobiakov’s schedule of back-to-back meetings affirmed the long-view approach to bilateral ties the UAE and Israel have taken.

“People don’t feel safe to travel now to Israel. It’s understandable. But this escalation, it will finish one day,” she said. “We know that all the conflicts are coming and they are going. Tourism is staying forever,” she added.

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