Friday’s surprise apology by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan could potentially mean the return of Israeli tourists to their once-beloved holiday destinations on the “Turkish Riviera,” according to tourism industry executives in Israel.

Ami Cohen, general manager of tour operator “Kavei Hofsha,” said Sunday “if this turns out to be a real reconciliation and not just headlines in the press, then Israelis will return to Antalya big time.”

Cohen said that on Sunday morning his company already saw 20 to 30 non- Arab Israelis order tickets to Turkey. He said it’s nothing like four to five years ago, when customers would order tens of thousands of package deals to Turkey through the company, but that soon the Israelis traveling to Turkey will no longer be solely from the Arab-Israeli sector.

Up until relations between Israel and Turkey began to sour about five years ago, around 500,000 Israeli tourists visited Turkey each year – enticed by the allinclusive resorts of Antalya and the affordable shopping opportunities in the country’s bazaars. They also tended to find a sort of mutual affinity with their Turkish hosts, as well as the local food and climate.

Such tourism for Israelis virtually vanished after the Mavi Marmara incident in May 2010, and since then nearly all remaining Israeli tourists to Turkey have been Israeli Arabs. Those Jewish Israelis who before had been hooked on the all-inclusive resorts instead turned to the Greek islands, Cyprus and Bulgaria’s Black Sea coast, as well as in smaller numbers to domestic resorts in Eilat, Tiberias and the Dead Sea.

Joseph Fischer, the head of Vision Hospitality and Travel, said the reconciliation, assuming it sticks, will represent “a major blow to domestic Israeli tourism,” not only for hotels in Eilat but also in the Dead Sea and Tiberias, where Israelis traveled in recent years instead of Turkey.

Fischer said that the Israeli customers who would have traveled to Antalya before never really found a satisfactory alternative within or outside Israel, and that they will return in droves to Turkey during the summer.

“A real alternative to Turkey was never found. Even Greece didn’t have the combination of the all-inclusive, the shopping and the duty free. There’s not another destination that can compete with it.”

In an unpublished essay he wrote Sunday titled, “Friends, the party’s over!” Fischer said that he predicts Turkish travel agents and hotels will launch a major effort to bring back Israeli tourists, which will include very competitive prices and that “this summer we will see hundreds of charter flights taking off to Antalya and Marmaris on the departure boards at Ben-Gurion Airport.”

Despite being a small minority of the 31 million tourists who visit Turkey per year, Israeli tourists tend to do a much larger than usual amount of shopping abroad, making their absence felt by the shop owners in the tourist areas of the Turkish Riviera, Istanbul and elsewhere in Turkey.

Yossi Fatael, managing director of the Israel Travel Agents Association was a bit more measured than Fischer, saying that while he does expect to see Israeli tourists going back to Turkey this summer, it won’t be at nearly the same numbers as before.

Fatael said that for one thing Antalya is not as cheap as it was in years earlier, and Israelis have gradually found other destinations since.

Regardless, he said Israelis returning to visit Turkey “won’t happen right away, it depends on the behavior of the politicians.”

Shabtai Shai, director of the Eilat Hotels Association, said Sunday he is not too worried about the effect the apology will have on tourism in the Red Sea city, saying that while it could take a bit out of their business, it shouldn’t be too dramatic.

“There were people who come to Eilat as an alternative to Turkey, but it wasn’t a lot, maybe 10% of visitors. The places Israelis went instead were more often Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria. It wasn’t that the 500,000 Israelis who used to go to Turkey suddenly all started going to Eilat instead.” Shai added “if Israelis do return to Turkey it will be gradual. We’ll see some already going back this summer, but it won’t be 500,000 people so the impact on Eilat should be small.”

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