Saudi Arabia has given the green light for Air India to fly over its airspace when flying to and from Tel Aviv, marking a historic first, Israel Public Radio reported on Wednesday.
Air India is set to begin a thrice-weekly New Delhi-Tel Aviv route in March, and the ability to fly over Saudi Arabia will considerably shorten the length of the route.
El Al currently has two weekly flights to and from Mumbai, but that flight takes some eight hours because it can not fly over Saudi Arabia, but rather must go south down the Red Sea to the Gulf of Aden and then north-east over the Arabian Sea to Mumbai.
The flight to New Delhi, which is a longer route then to Mumbai, will take only six hours. This route, too, will not be the shortest, since the most direct route would fly across Iraq, Iran and Pakistan, something currently inconceivable.
Saudi Arabia has never before allowed airlines to overfly its territory on the way to Israel, and would mark a significant departure from past policies amid a steady stream of reports of increasing cooperation between Israel and Saudi Arabia.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought up the issue during his visit to India last month. India’s Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj is currently on a three-day visit to Saudi Arabia.
In a related development, the Tourism ministry announced that it will approve a 750,000 euro one-time grant to Air India for opening a new direct line, said Lydia Weitzman, a spokeswoman for the ministry. She said this is done to encourage new routes from destinations that have potential for incoming tourism,” and that this is not a new policy, but rather something Israel has done in the past.
According to Ministry of Tourism figures, some 58,000 Indian tourists came to Israel in 2017, a 47% increase from 2015. Israel is making a concerted effort to woo Indian tourists, with Netanyahu’s meetings with Bollywood executive and actors last month an attempt to get them to shoot movies in Israel. Prime Minister Office director-general Eli Groner said during Netanyahu’s visit that that studies show clearly that countries where Bollywood movies are filmed see a significant bump in tourism from India.
Just over 60,000 Israelis visited India in last year, according to a report last month on the India Today television network. This represents a 20% increase from 2015.