TEL AVIV (Reuters) - Ryanair (RYA.I) will launch flights to Israel this winter, saying the Red Sea resort city of Eilat has potential to compete for Europeans looking for an alternative to the Canary Islands.
Starting in November, the Irish low-cost carrier will offer six weekly flights to Ovda Airport north of Eilat from Budapest, Krakow in Poland and Kaunas in Lithuania.
David O’Brien, Ryanair’s chief commercial officer, told a news conference on Tuesday the November-March flights should bring about 40,000 passengers and $20 million into Eilat.
“There is a growing appetite for winter sun in central and Eastern Europe,” he said, adding if the routes were a success, Ryanair would add more. “We expect other airlines to follow our lead.”
Ryanair’s entry into Israel follows the country two years ago signing an open skies agreement with the European Union as the state encouraged more low-cost carriers to fly to Israel.
A host of such airlines have started flying to Israel, including Norwegian, Wizz Air and EasyJet, while Israeli flag carrier El Al (ELAL.TA) last year launched its own “UP” low-cost brand to some European cities.
O’Brien said the average winter temperature in Gran Canaria and Eilat were similar but that 10 million tourists a year spend $5 billion in Gran Canaria compared with 1.5 million tourists spending $700 million in Eilat.
At present, few carriers fly direct to Eilat. Those wishing to vacation there typically fly to Tel Aviv and connect to small Israeli carriers Arkia or Israir.
O’Brien said Ryanair would like to fly to Tel Aviv but there was no urgency as Ben-Gurion International Airport is expensive. Still, it was working on flights between Tel Aviv and Cyprus.
“We will grow to 160 million passengers by 2024 - 60 million more than now and we hope a significant amount will be here.”
At 1.5 million people, Tel Aviv has a larger population than Copenhagen or Dublin but far fewer airport passengers, he noted.
Reporting by Steven Scheer, editing by David Evans