Israeli airlines start direct flights to Morocco after improved ties

JERUSALEM, July 25 (Reuters) - Two Israeli carriers on Sunday launched nonstop commercial flights to Marrakesh from Tel Aviv following the upgrading of diplomatic relations last year between Morocco and Israel.

Israel and Morocco agreed last December to upgrade diplomatic ties and relaunch direct flights - part of a deal brokered by the United States that also included Washington's recognition of Moroccan sovereignty over Western Sahara.

"This route will help promote tourism, trade and economic cooperation between the two countries," said Israeli Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov.

Israir flight 61 took off at 8:15 a.m. (0515 GMT) for the 5 1/2 hour flight, with stewards wearing traditional Moroccan garb and serving Moroccan food.

El Al Israel Airlines (ELAL.TA) flight 553 took off at 11:35 a.m. (0835 GMT).

El Al, Israel's flag carrier which was hit hard last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, said it will operate up to five flights a week to Morocco on Boeing 737 planes.

Smaller rival Israir said it would operate two flights a week on its route to Marrakesh.

Israel's Arkia and Royal Air Maroc are also expected to start flights in the next month.

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. 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.

Moroccan officials describe their deal with Israel, including the opening of liaison offices, as a restoration of mid-level ties that Rabat cooled in 2000 in solidarity with Palestinians.

In March, Moroccan Tourism Minister Nadia Fettah Alaoui said she expected 200,000 Israeli visitors in the first year following the resumption of direct flights. That compares with about 13 million yearly total foreign tourists before the pandemic.

Tourism revenue in Morocco fell by 53.8% to 36.3 billion dirhams ($3.8 billion) in 2020.

Reporting by Steven Scheer Editing by Raissa Kasolowsky

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