RABAT/JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Morocco hopes its improved ties with Israel and centuries-old Jewish history will help it offset some of the tourist trade it has lost to the global pandemic by bringing a surge of Israeli visitors once flights restart next month.
The two countries agreed in December to resume diplomatic ties and relaunch direct flights - part of a deal brokered by the United States that also includes Washington’s recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.
“I was quite afraid to go previously, because it’s an Arab country, even though I was told that tours there were fine. Now that there is peace, I think I can go without fear,” said retired Israeli teacher Rivka Sheetrit, 69, who wants to see where her parents once lived and her forefathers were buried.
“When the skies reopen I plan to go,” she said.
Morocco was home to one of the largest and most prosperous Jewish communities in North Africa and the Middle East for centuries until Israel’s founding in 1948. As Jews fled or were expelled from many Arab countries, an estimated quarter of a million left Morocco for Israel from 1948-1964.
Today only about 3,000 Jews remain in Morocco, while hundreds of thousands of Israelis claim some Moroccan ancestry.
More than other countries in the region where the issue is often taboo, Morocco has sought in recent years to recognise the Jewish role in its history. In 2010, it launched a programme to restore synagogues, Jewish cemeteries and heritage sites, and reinstated the original names of some Jewish neighbourhoods.
Though the numbers of Israeli visitors are likely to be small compared to the total pre-COVID-19 tourist flow to Morocco, it could help a sector battered by the pandemic.
Tourism minister Nadia Fettah Alaoui has said she expects 200,000 Israeli visitors in the first year following the resumption of direct flights. That compares to about 13 million yearly foreign tourists before the pandemic. Tourism revenue fell by 53.8% to 36.3 billion dirhams ($3.8 billion) in 2020.
In the pretty Moroccan port town of Essaouira, once home to a big Jewish community and still the location of several important shrines, tourism businesses are poised for a boost.
Ayoub Souri, who has a woodcraft shop near a Jewish museum, expects business to thrive: “We look forward to receiving more Jewish tourists after the normalisation deal,” he said.
Though a small number of Israeli tourists already come to Morocco, many have been put off by the lack of direct flights and diplomatic ties. The head of the Israeli liaison office in Rabat, which reopened after the deal, said he expected flights to resume next month.
“This is the main reason the number of Israeli tourists will increase significantly,” the liaison chief, David Govrin, said.
Morocco’s tourism promotion office has commissioned a study on attracting tourists from Israel.
Henri Abizker, a Jewish community leader and businessman in Rabat who owns a travel agency organising tours for Israelis, said he was even more optimistic about the numbers, predicting up to 400,000 would come.
Morocco is attractive because of its particular Jewish history as home to pilgrimage sites, attracting tourism that could benefit specialist operators.
“Younger generations tend to be more liberal, but orthodox Jews insist on Kosher requirements,” he said.
In Israel, Haim Peretz, an Israeli of Jewish Moroccan descent who now works as a tour guide, said potential tourists were mainly waiting for direct flights.
“We expect, in principle, that demand for tourism in Morocco will grow,” he said.
Reporting by Ahmed Eljechtimi in Rabat and Dan Williams in Jerusalem; Editing by Angus McDowall and Peter Graff
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.