Greece? Cyprus? Iceland? Israelis Face Few Options for Overseas Travel This Summer

Israelis hoping to plan an August getaway will find numerous coronavirus-related obstacles standing in their way – oh, and good luck getting travel insurance

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A visitor watching the sunset at a bar on the island of Mykonos, Greece, June 9, 2020.
A visitor watching the sunset at a bar on the island of Mykonos, Greece, June 9, 2020.Credit: Derek Gatopoulos/AP

>> UPDATE: Coronavirus surge imperils Israel's chance to get green light for travel abroad

Golden beaches, gleaming blue swimming pools and rugged landscapes were temptingly displayed across Israeli television screens as recently as last week, with news headlines hinting that Israel’s low COVID-19 infection rate meant that travel to nearby foreign destinations like Greece was around the corner.

Travel-starved Israelis – even those whose pocketbooks had taken a hit from the coronavirus pandemic – beat a path to websites and travel agents to inquire whether they could begin thinking about a summer vacation, after they had spent their Passover breaks in lockdown. 

But reality has kicked in quickly. It turned out the stories about Greek resorts preparing for tourists were fueled by overly optimistic public relations firms working for the Greek hotels. It was a similar story with fantasy destinations like the Seychelles, whose hoteliers had proclaimed they were ready and waiting for Israeli visitors.

Even for those desperate enough for a getaway that they are willing to self-isolate for two weeks when they return home – a requirement still in place for Israeli citizens – the selection of potential vacation spots, and means of transportation to get there, remains highly limited.

Greece, the popular destination on which Israelis were pinning their hopes, is more than a month and half away at best. Meeting Tuesday with his Greek counterpart, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said he aims to renew regular international flights to and from Israel by August 1, despite initial reports that it would be a month prior. 

Countries worldwide Israelis can travel to this summer (as of June 17, 2020) Credit: Haaretz

However, that doesn’t mean there’s any guarantee Greece will necessarily let Israelis in on that date. The Greek prime minister qualified his remarks at his Jerusalem press conference with Netanyahu, agreeing that August 1 is the target day to allow Israelis to enter Greece, but only “if all goes to plan.” 

The problem for Greece – which would allow Israelis in if it could (“They really, really want it to happen,” said one government source) – is that it is bound by the limitations of the European Union agreement on sharing visa policies. 

For now, unless they carry an EU passport, foreign nationals will not be admitted into any of the countries bound by the Schengen Agreement – which is every EU country except Ireland and Cyprus, plus Switzerland. This rules out the vast majority of Israeli travelers’ favorite destinations on the Continent.

Other attractive ports of call are also currently no-gos for foreigners, Israelis included. These include India, China, Russia, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. 

Israeli tourists are not strictly prohibited from visiting additional countries like the United Kingdom and Ethiopia, but 14-day isolation requirements upon arrival – added to the same isolation requirement when returning home – make them less than attractive vacation options, to put it mildly. 

Some destinations without the 14-day requirement are theoretically possible to visit: Caribbean islands like Barbados and St. Lucia are now open to tourists. But on a practical level, finding available flights would be challenging, expensive and involve inconvenient scheduling. 

That doesn’t mean all overseas travel possibilities are closed to Israelis who are truly itching to travel and aren’t cowed by the worst pandemic in a century.

According to Mark Feldman of Diesenhaus Tours, for Israelis who hold valid visas or a U.S. passport, a vacation in the United States – where destinations in many states are open for business – is probably the easiest and best option, and daily flights have been operating between Tel Aviv and Newark throughout the pandemic. One major hitch: The high rate of coronavirus infection in the United States has made travel health insurance to that country difficult and expensive to obtain. 

Passengers wearing protective face masks arrive at the Athens International Airport, following the easing of measures against the spread of the coronavirus in Greece, June 15, 2020.Credit: ALKIS KONSTANTINIDIS/REUTERS

A few weeks ago, El Al began flying intermittently to New York, and says it plans to add flights to Los Angeles, Paris and London in July. The vast majority of its employees, however, are still furloughed until July 31 and it is hiring limited crews for its flights.

Travel agents caution those booking flights on the airline. “People have to be very careful,” Feldman said. “Very few of us travel professionals are taking the risk with El Al, because they cancel and change all the time. We don’t recommend booking them right now. I wish I could.”

Turkish Airlines, meanwhile, has told travel agents it will resume its Istanbul-Tel Aviv route from June 24 and the country has just declared itself open to tourists again. However, there is no sign of flights resuming to resort areas like Antalya, and the 14-day quarantine rules for returning Israelis makes a long weekend or weeklong jaunt to the nearby tourist spot impractical.

Other possibilities exist if you are willing to jump through bureaucratic hoops, according to listings on Trip.com (which are subject to change): 

* Cyprus is a potential substitute for Greece, but visitors are required to present a certificate showing a negative COVID-19 test result using a polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test performed no more than 72 hours prior to departure. Obtaining test results within the proper time frame could be tricky – and currently flights are few and far between. 

* Iceland reopened its doors to visitors this week, as long as they take a free COVID-19 test upon arrival. As of July 1, travelers will have to foot the bill themselves, with tests costing about $110. 

* Israel’s worsening infection rates have taken one option off the list that, until recently, had been eyed as an attractive alternative for Israeli tourists. On June 1, Montenegro began permitting entrance to foreigners from countries with a rate of active coronavirus cases of fewer than 25 per 100,000 with no self-isolation measures required. Until this week, Israel qualified as being among them. But as coronavirus cases spiked, it was removed from the list.

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