Americans interested in traveling to Israel and other Middle East countries will have more options than ever thanks to new peace accords announced last year.
The Abraham Accords, a peace agreement between Israel, the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, were signed in September in Washington, D.C.. Brokered by the Trump administration, they represent the first normalization of relations between Israel and Arab nations since the peace agreements with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994.
The accords have widespread geopolitical implications for the region, which has been plagued by racial and national hostilities since the founding of the modern Israeli state in 1948. But among the benefits of the normalized relations will be an unprecedented ease of travel for visitors from North America, South America and Europe.
Following the lead set by the U.A.E. and Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan recently normalized relations with Israel as well.
One significant aspect of the agreement is the opening of airspace over Saudi Arabia, which had previously been closed for flights to or from Israel.
“The big impact is that Saudi Arabia is a silent partner in the accords,” said Eyal Carlin, Israel Ministry of Tourism’s commissioner for North America. “Before the agreements, if you wanted to fly to visit multiple countries in the Middle East, you’d have to do multileg travel through a place like Jordan just to get from point to point.
“You can now travel from the U.S. to the U.A.E. on an Emirates plane, then fly straight to Israel, then to Amman, Jordan. Or you can be part of some kind of airline alliance that code-shares through the region. That’s a huge impact for travelers; it makes the region much more accessible.”
For American groups that travel to the Middle East, and especially church groups interested in visiting biblical sites in the region, Egypt and Jordan have been popular companion destinations to Israel. The new accords will expand the list of countries that can be included on a Middle East tour.
“It opens up at least four more destinations to combine on trips with Israel,” Carlin said. “We’re estimating that we’ll see combinations that have Israel, Emirates, Jordan and Egypt. And there are other countries that are easily accessible through those countries. So, it’s easy to travel to Oman, Qatar or Saudi Arabia from the Emirates, then on to Tel Aviv.”
In addition to facilitating ease of movement from one country to another, the accords will give U.S. travel planners more options for airlines and tour companies on trips to the Middle East. Emirates, the national airline of the U.A.E., already offers extensive service to the region from the U.S. and can now offer connections into Israel.
“There will be competition between more players,” Carlin said. “That’s something that will favor the consumer. The U.S. traveler now will have a lot more countries that can offer them the full product. That will make it a bit cheaper, and it will be a one-stop shop. Before, the traveler would have to design the trip themselves and buy things from different operators and airlines. Now, there’s a lot of cooperation between Israeli and Emirati companies.”
Carlin said that the tourism boards of the signatory countries plan to work together to create joint product and educate American travel planners about new possibilities in the region.
Although the increased travel became legally possible when the accords were signed last year, the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed implementation of planned route expansions. But airlines such as Emirates, Etihad and Fly Dubai have announced they will fly to Israel once pandemic lockdowns are lifted, and El Al, Israel’s national airline, has plans to fly to the U.A.E. as well.
Carlin said he is hopeful that public health restrictions may ease soon, as Israel currently leads the world in vaccination rollout.
“We see the light, but it’s taking a while to get there,” he said. “We’re trying to push our ministry of health to publish a target opening date. And we’re working on a few different entry procedures and travel protocols.
“I’m hearing from a lot of the tour operators that deal with Christian travelers. A lot of people are estimating that a large portion of the groups they’re planning to send to Israel will be vaccinated by the summer. So that’s very optimistic.”