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'Israel has a lot to offer the Arab tourist market': Arieh O'Sullivan discusses touring Israel

Arieh O'Sullivan next to the Dome of the Rock (Courtesy Arieh O'Sullivan)
Arieh O’Sullivan is a veteran Israeli journalists and tour guide. He sat down with the Israel Gulf Report to discuss his hopes for the future in the wake of the new peace deals.

Can you tell us a bit about your background?

I have been a registered tour guide for many years for VIPs and high-profile visitors, and I am a veteran journalist. I have taken Arab leaders from the region on tours, including from Yemen, Sudan, Jordan, Tunisia. In February I took a group that came via Turkey.

What do you think of the possibilities in the wake of the Abraham Accords?

People see the UAE and Bahrain deal as an opportunity for tourism. Many Israelis travel abroad. Most of the past peace deals didn’t generate many visits from Jordan or Egypt. People were focused on religious travel to Israel. However I think the UAE is different because there is a lot of energy being put in to joint ventures, from hi-tech and agriculture. What they are interested in is what we are interested in.

What would you suggest they see? For people coming here from the Gulf one of the major sites is the Haram al-Sharif, the third holiest site in Islam. That will be a big draw. There are many Arab-speaking tour guides here to assist visitors. In the past we have seen many Arab Christian visitors coming here.

I think this is still being watched by a lot of people. There are many people from the region that would like to come here, such as Iraqis. There could be peace with Oman in the future. The question is what is the major draw for Arabs and when we get around the controversy of the Palestinian issue this will open up a flood. Nowadays it is less of a taboo to mention Israel relations. I’m not sure we have reached the tipping point yet. Time will help.

Israel has a lot to offer the Arab tourist market. This is because first of all we know how to cater to tourists and also we offer Halal options and we have different opportunities at beaches, such as beaches that offer male and female bathing areas. Israelis are friendly and curious and will reach out and befriend visitors.

What challenges do you foresee? I think one issue that Israel will need to deal with is the visa issue. Up until now those who came with stamps from Arab states could be subjected to questioning and to make it a more comfortable experience is important. When I had a recent group two people were kept for more than an hour of questioning at the border. For security we are a bit old fashioned when it comes to speedy entry. We had many issues where we pushed VIP treatment and provided names ahead of time and it was an issue for a long time. It’s not a major issue and I think Bahrainis and Emirates will be welcomed here. Everyone will want to meet with them, all the entrepreneurs with a lot of Hollywood-style elevator pitches to them. They will find in Israel that we have everything here, hi-tech, nightlife, luxury hotels, but it comes at a cost. It is expensive here.

They could help Israel improve and become a tourism hub though? This whole idea of a hub is great because people have limited time. We have tourists that go to Israel and Jordan. It is mainly Evangelicals. Also people that want to see Petra and Wadi Rum. They have a law there where they want people to stay for a night. Could it become a hub here? It makes it easier. As borders are taken down we will see a lot of travel. Israel and Turkey, despite diplomatic issues, have strong tourist ties. I think a lot of Israeli media will be pushing UAE trips. I heard an interview with Eilat hotels about price competition with the UAE. One thing that Israeli tourism officials know is we have Jerusalem and the Dead Sea and holy sites. That is a draw. How much of a draw will that be for the Muslim world, I’m not sure, outside of Jerusalem. However, any Muslim traveling here will find it more comforting than they may have thought, because it offers amenities for observant travelers.

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