The Israelis are coming! Are the expectations for the Israel-Morocco travel boom sustainable?
In another demonstration of the tangible benefits of the Abraham Accords, El Al and Israir will both commence regularly scheduled flights between Israel and Morocco on July 25. The two countries formalized diplomatic relations in December 2020. Commercial flights and tourism were to shortly follow but a resurging outbreak of the Coronavirus necessitated a delay of half a year.
El Al has announced that it will operate flights from Tel Aviv (TLV) to both Casablanca (CMN) and Marrakesh (RAK) with three weekly flights to both cities. The 5 to 6 hour-flights will utilize 737-900 equipment and operate on Sunday, Tuesday, and Thursday. Israir had previously stated that it would fly five times a week to Marrakesh using its fleet of A320s. The third Israeli carrier, Arkia, will also start flying to Marrakesh on August 3 with an A321neo.
That’s a lot of capacity in a brand-new untested market. And it doesn’t even factor in Royal Air Maroc (RAM). Reports last December were that RAM would fly four times a week to Israel in January with 787-8 equipment. So far, the carrier has not announced its intentions to start the service. Presumably, the airline will join the fray, although it’s not yet clear exactly when.
That’s a lot capacity in a market. Is the demand really there? Let’s take a look.
First, some important context. This not your typical new market with all the accompanying usual uncertainties. The two countries, while officially maintaining no diplomatic relations until late last year, in fact have a long and intertwined relationship. Decades of covert security and intelligence cooperation between Jerusalem and Rabat underscore long-standing common interests, despite public pronouncements to the contrary.
But what really matters here is that Morocco was once the home to more than 700,000 Jews. Only about 3,000 remain there today. A large percentage immigrated to Israel following the upheavals in Morocco following the Israeli war of independence in 1948, the Sinai Campaign of 1956, and the Six-Day War in 1967. Today, according to government statistics, about a million Israelis Jews have at least a partial family connection to Morocco.
Morocco has a well-established tourism industry with a lot to offer tourists. Before Covid-19, the country received over 3 million tourists annually. Morocco’s tourism industry has been hurt badly by the pandemic. Israeli visitors represent a sudden wellspring of visitors to jumpstart that sector’s recovery.
The UAE market may provide a useful prototype of why such optimism is justified. Following the peace treaty between Israel and the UAE, commercial flights between the two countries have skyrocketed to the current level of 26 weekly flights. While some of the demand is a function of the very limited travel options due to the pandemic, the UAE offers one of the most developed and popular tourism draws in the world. Dubai has become something of a Las Vegas, Manhattan, and Orlando wrapped up in one. Prior to the outbreak of Covid-19 – Emirates was the largest international airline in the world – and Dubai one of the busiest airports.
Morocco’s tourism minister Nadia Fettah Alaoui said she expected 200,000 Israeli visitors in the first year with the start of direct flights. While Israeli tourists have been welcome in Morocco for many years, they had to enter with a tour group and fly through a third country (generally France). Direct flights are expected to drive a surge in the number of Israeli visitors.
At the current rate, about 200,000 seats are being offered between the UAE and Israel. While the weekly flight count has fluctuated, it has since settled at about this level, which seems to be sustainable. Considering that there are practically no historic or cultural ties between Israel and the Gulf state – that’s a remarkable jump-start for a previously non-existent market. This augurs well for the Israel-Morocco sector, in which hundreds of thousands of Israelis have deep roots in the North African country.
Most of the focus here has been one-way – Israelis going to Morocco. There will be traffic in the other direction as well. The Holy Land is a big draw in the Muslim world and Jerusalem is high on the list for must-see sites. But the Moroccan middle-class is not as dominant as in Israel and the country has a more modest footprint in generating outbound traffic. Further, few Moroccans can trace their recent history to Israel, so the cultural ties are not nearly as strong. This would explain the earlier announced plans for RAM to operate four times a week, whereas Israeli airlines will be operating eleven.
Regardless – an increase from zero to 11 weekly flights is a once-in-a-generation growth opportunity. That is, especially under the ongoing shadow of the pandemic, something other countries could only dream of.