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RAMNA SHAHZAD
TORONTO — The Canadian Press
Published Monday, Oct. 28 2013, 1:20 PM EDT

The first direct flight from Saudi Arabia landed Monday morning at Toronto’s Pearson International Airport, becoming the fourth Gulf airline operating flights to Canada.

The Saudia plane – a Boeing 777-200 – was greeted on the tarmac with a customary first-flight water salute from fire trucks.

The Saudi national carrier will have three direct flights to Toronto each week.

The company says the Toronto flights will serve different groups of passengers, including Saudi students in Canada and Canadians who travel to the kingdom each year for hajj and umrah pilgrimages Last year more than three million people performed the hajj, including an estimated 3,400 Canadians. Another 4,000 Canadians performed the umrah.

According to Citizenship and Immigration Canada, there were more than 14,000 Saudi students enrolled in Canadian educational institutions last year.

With the launch of the Toronto service, Saudia will become the fourth Gulf airline operating flights to Canada after Emirates, Etihad and Qatar Airways.

All three airlines have been demanding additional landing rights and Ottawa’s refusal to allow more flights led to a bitter diplomatic row between Canada and the United Arab Emirates two years ago.

Relations have improved dramatically in the past year and visa restrictions imposed on Canadian travellers by the UAE at the height of the crisis were lifted a few months ago although no changes in landing rights were announced.

Emirates and Etihad fly three times a week to Toronto while Qatar Airways has three flights a week to Montreal.

Howard Bohan, vice-president of the Greater Toronto Airports Authority, said the direct Saudi flights were incredibly important to Toronto.

“Direct service between Toronto and Saudi Arabia three times a week will give passengers great new access to this part of the world.”

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Written for The Canadian Press, the story was also picked up by CBC, CTV, Macleans and several other news outlets.

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