An Emirates Boeing 777-31H aircraft takes off from Dubai International Airport on April 6, 2020. (AFP/Karim Sahib)
Direct flights between Israel and the UAE, slated to begin in October after a landmark normalization deal, are to be postponed until January because of coronavirus, an Israeli official said Tuesday.
The air link, one of the most tangible outcomes of the accord signed at the White House last month, aims to open up tourism and business opportunities to offset the COVID-19 slowdown that has knocked their economies.
But a second lockdown in Israel, which now has one of the world's highest infection rates per capita, has put plans on hold, denting hopes for quick gains.
"I feel with the COVID that we're kind of running with our hands behind our backs," Jerusalem's deputy mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum told AFP during a visit to Dubai, a member of the United Arab Emirates.
"There were supposed to be direct flights in October, then Israel went into shutdown. Now, when I speak to officials here and there, we're looking at the first of January," said Hassan-Nahoum, who is also co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council.
UAE carriers Emirates and Etihad, as well as budget operator flydubai and Israir, are all considering operating the sector, she said.
Dubai-based Emirates plans to produce kosher meals in keeping with Jewish dietary rules, with a dedicated production facility expected to be operating from its UAE premises by January.
Despite the delay, Hassan-Nahoum said the tourism sector will be among the first to benefit from the normalization agreement.
With the accord having taken everyone by surprise, there are few firm projections but she said industry experts estimate 100-250,000 visitors a year from each side.
"I can tell you in Israel there's such a thirst for peace and normalization within our country, especially the UAE which is the most modern economy of the Middle East. People are really excited," she said.
"COVID is the only thing holding us back," she added, together with the lack of visa arrangements which are currently being thrashed out.
"The minute a visa regime is in place, we're talking about many, many people on both sides coming here.
"There's a real palpable excitement, not just to go on an extra holiday vacation. It's really about this rapprochement with an Arab country that wants a warm peace."
A new influx of tourists will be welcome news for Dubai, which has the region's most diversified economy but saw GDP contract 3.5 percent in the first quarter, after two years of modest growth.
Emirates airline has been forced to downsize and cut thousands of jobs.
Tourism has long been the emirate's mainstay. It welcomed more than 16 million visitors in 2019 and before the pandemic crippled global travel, the aim was to reach 20 million this year.
The UAE was the first Gulf monarchy to normalize ties with Israel and only the third Arab country, after Jordan and Egypt, with whom the Jewish state's relations are lukewarm.
Bahrain followed its Gulf neighbor's lead last month.
After the UAE deal was announced in August, El Al flew a delegation of US and Israeli officials to Abu Dhabi.
It was the first commercial flight between the two countries as well as the first official flight of the Israeli carrier over Saudi Arabia.
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