Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz made history on Tuesday when he became the first minister from the Jewish state to head an official delegation to a large global conference in Saudi Arabia.
“Tourism is a bridge between nations,” Katz stated at the UN World Tourism Organization conference held in the Saudi capital of Riyadh.
“Cooperation in the field of tourism has the potential to bring hearts together, and economic progress,” he added.
Saudi Arabia's Tourism Minister Ahmed Al-Khateeb implicitly recognized the historic presence of his Israeli counterpart on Wednesday.
“There is a delegation here in the country for the first time. I hope they were received well. Welcome,” Khateeb stated. “Everyone in this room understands that tourism is the bridge between people and between cultures."
While it is unclear whether the Saudi and Israeli ministers will meet, Saudi public recognition of an Israeli delegation on Saudi soil is considered a major diplomatic breakthrough in the ongoing American-led Saudi-Israeli normalization efforts.
The Israeli minister has so far held discussions with his counterparts from Greece, Albania, Monaco and Malta. In addition, Katz also met with the economy minister of Kyrgyzstan and the trade minister of Bahrain, a small Arab Gulf kingdom that normalized ties with Israel in 2020.
There are currently no official diplomatic relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel. However, the Saudi Kingdom is believed to have played a prominent backstage role in realizing the historic Arab-Israeli Abraham Accords in 2020, which were brokered by the U.S. Trump administration.
While Saudi Arabia and Israel have developed covert ties, there are growing signals of a potential official normalization agreement between the two countries.
In July 2022, Saudi Arabia announced it would open up its airspace for Israeli commercial airplanes, greatly reducing travel time between Israel, the Persian Gulf region and the Far East.
During a recent exclusive Fox News interview, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) publicly stated: “Every day we get closer” in reference to a normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel. MBS noted that Washington was publicly supporting such an agreement.
“There is support from President Biden’s administration to get to that point [of peace with Israel].”
However, MBS stressed that Saudi Arabia views a solution to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian Authority as a crucial component in a future Saudi-Israeli peace agreement.
“For us, the Palestinian issue is very important. We need to solve that part. And we have good negotiations that continue,” the crown prince stated.
Saudi Arabia, itself, has a large tourism potential and has reportedly set a goal for their tourism sector to contribute 17% of the country’s GDP by the year 2032.
The Kingdom reportedly hosted nearly 8 million tourists during the first quarter of 2023, according to the Saudi Press Agency (SPA). Revenues during the same period tripled.
In June, Al-Khateeb expressed optimism that the COVID-19 pandemic was finally a thing of the past in terms of its tourism.
“The pandemic is behind us … we will grow fast this year, we’re optimistic.”
A potential Saudi-Israeli normalization agreement would likely benefit Saudi's tourism sector as Israelis are known to be avid travelers and globetrotters.
Some one million Israelis have reportedly already visited the United Arab Emirates just three years after the signing of the Abraham Accords in 2020.
The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.