Just as he does on every trip to Masada, Amit Musaei reminded tourists in his group this week to check if they had brought along hats, sunscreen and plenty of water to counter the punishing heat as they ascended the famous fortress overlooking the Dead Sea.
But unlike past tours, the experienced guide’s reminder was delivered with a wink and a smile. He wasn’t speaking to tourists assembled in a hotel lobby about to board a bus. Instead, he was addressing a group of people worldwide in front of their computer screens on Zoom, taking the only kind of tour possible in Israel during the coronavirus crisis: a virtual one.
“Hey, at least this way you get to hike in the desert without sweating,” he joked.
Musaei and his fellow guides and tour operators are among the hardest-hit casualties of the pandemic among Israel’s small business owners. While it is true that nearly every aspect of the tourism industry has been devastated, hope is beginning to dawn for hotels, restaurants and other businesses as the country gradually opened up this week. The hope is that internal tourism will help rekindle a stream of income, as Israelis venture out of their homes and begin traveling within the country.
But for guides like Musaei, whose bread and butter is showing the sights to overseas visitors, the forecast is still grim as the countries his clients come from – the United States, Mexico and as far afield as Australia – continue to battle the virus. So he, along with a handful of other colleagues, are going online: If the tourists can’t come to Israel, he will bring Israel to them.
The same evening Musaei was leading his virtual tour of Masada, Elisa Moed was welcoming another group to Caesarea. Moed runs Travelujah, a tour operator that serves the evangelical market, and she began with an update on the coronavirus crisis in Israel and – as she does on all tours these days – invited participants to offer an opening prayer.
One woman gave a blessing for good health to Moed, her family and all of the tour participants, adding, “Thank you, Lord, that Israel is coming out of this quarantine time and that you are blessing that land.”
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Her group of about 60 tourists then proceeded to “visit” the ancient seaside city, led by guide Itamar Ben David, with whom Moed works on her real-life tours. He led his guests through the site, pointing out the walls and taking them “into” Caesarea's famous amphitheater, while giving them historic and religious background on the impressively preserved city and harbor built by King Herod the Great in 22-10 B.C.E.
Like Musaei, Moed, who hails from Detroit, said that from the beginning of the crisis in early March, as incoming tourism instantly evaporated, she looked for out-of-the-box solutions to save her business.
“It started as a way for me to stay connected with clients and reach out to people around the world and keep them connected to Israel. None of us have any idea how long this will go on, and I didn’t want to risk losing all my relationships,” she explained.
Back then, with Easter approaching, Moed decided that the holiday was an opportunity to give pilgrims whose tours had been canceled “some part of the experience they wanted to have” by offering an online stroll through Jerusalem's Old City, including the Via Dolorosa and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre.
Seventy people signed up – and afterward “you could tell they felt as if they were touching Israel and that it was a meaningful experience for them. Immediately, they wanted to know if we would be doing any more,” Moed said.
To meet the demand, she followed up with trips to the Old City's Temple Mount, to the Galilee and Nazareth in the north, and then Caesarea (midway between Tel Aviv and Haifa).
“I’m finding that it really encourages people who are feeling very isolated,” Moed said. “This is providing them with inspiration that speaks to their faith. It’s something that we all need more than ever.”
Besides beginning each event by sharing how Israel is dealing with the pandemic, Moed talks about her own challenging experiences: Her parents in the United States, in their nineties, were both diagnosed with COVID-19 and she had to watch and worry from Israel. On the Caesarea tour, she reported happily, they appeared to be on the mend and her mother’s last test was negative.
“People have returned now for several tours," she said, "and I guess what has surprised me is how personal it feels. It was designed to connect them to Israel, but we are really connecting to each other as people, and they are so happy about it. It’s gotten quite emotional – it almost feels like a family.”
A dream job, a passion
Similarly, Israeli-born Musaei views his online tours as a labor of love. For the 37-year-old resident of Holon, south of Tel Aviv, who became a full-time guide seven years ago, guiding isn’t just his dream job – it’s his passion.
When his full schedule of bookings for groups stretching from March until August disappeared, he scrambled to think of a way to provide for his wife and their three young daughters, ages 6, 4 and 1, who were now at home all day as schools and day care shut down.
“For me, to not be working hasn’t just been a loss of income or something to do,” Musaei explained. “I’ve lost a lot of my spirit, because I don’t get to go to work and do what I love to do. So at least when I’m online, I still get to see and interact with people, even though it is two-dimensional. I get to see their faces and hear their voices. I don’t treat it like a lecture or presentation. It’s a real tour.”
During past emergency situations in Israel, Christian groups have been a particularly resilient source of tourism, continuing to visit even during waves of rocket attacks and in wartime – and quickly returning in droves afterward. In early March, Musaei began to test the waters by reaching out primarily to the pastors of evangelical churches he has worked with in the past, and began to offer tours for their congregations.
“I soon found that [virtual tourism] was something that helps both sides. These pastors are having a hard time right now, since they can’t minister and preach to their congregations in person," he said.
"I offer the pastors a way to spend time with their congregation that isn’t just preaching to them online – they may all be in their homes, but with the tour they are doing something meaningful together: They are seeing and learning things that they can discuss and react to. You can feel and see people getting excited about what they are seeing: There are a lot of emotions – and some even cry.”
Musaei is now moving beyond privately arranged groups and targeting a more general audience. Both he and Moed have so far offered their tours for free, with a request for a donation from those who enjoyed the experience. But now he feels he has developed a clientele, Musaei said he is preparing to transition into charging a small fee. He is also contacting guides who speak other languages, whom he will bring in to accompany the visual materials he has developed for groups who don’t speak English.
Re-hearing the story
Musaei’s partner in his endeavor is Menno de Vries, 50, who normally works with guides and arranges bus transportation for dozens of groups every month – which is how he met Amit. A Dutch native who has lived in Israel for 12 years and is married to an Israeli, de Vries works extensively with the British, Belgian and Dutch markets (he conducts tours aimed for the latter himself).
Until connecting with Musaei, he had little contact with the U.S. evangelical market: His business caters to European “sun and fun” visitors to Tel Aviv, who want to book day trips to the holy sites. De Vries spent the winter attending tourism fairs in Europe, investing substantially in marketing, filling up his spring and summer calendar. But like his colleagues in the industry, he saw his entire investment in the coming season disappear.
“It was terrible,” he admitted.
When Musaei came to him with the idea of online touring, “To be honest, I didn’t really believe in it,” de Vries said. But after watching one of the virtual tours for a Christian pastor and his community, he said, “a light switched on – I saw an opportunity. The Christian market is a huge market, and online business can work if you have a lot of people.”
With Musaei focused on the content of the tours, de Vries has been concentrating on bringing in the audience via social media and direct mail, drawing on his online marketing background.
De Vries notes that “after we did about 10 tours, I could see there was more than just religious tourism – that we could appeal to everyone. These tours aren’t just educational, they are entertaining. A good tour guide is a good storyteller. And people are willing to pay something for entertainment, especially now – and especially something social and interactive where they can talk and ask questions.
"We are seeing people book multiple tours. There are people who have never visited Israel before, people who meant to visit around this time but had their plans canceled and even, interestingly, people who have been to the site in question – like Masada – before, but it was 20 or 30 years ago and they want to re-hear the story. Or maybe it wasn’t so long ago and they were just so hot and tired from the climb they weren’t really paying attention.”
Online food fest
Joel Haber, 49, a Jerusalem tour guide, said he also sensed early on in the coronavirus crisis that it was going to be a rough ride. He immediately cut down on expenses, but “I also realized I needed to find some way to bring in some income – and going online seemed like the way to do it.”
Haber’s tours don’t focus on religion as much as another area that people feel passionate about: food.
Haber, who moved to Israel from New Jersey 11 years ago, is writing a book about Jewish cuisine. His specialty is culinary tours, with his most popular one “by far” being a tasting tour of Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda food market.
To create an online experience, Haber collected photos and videos of the market, and created a "shuk" tour where he “ties it all together with stories and explanations and answers and questions.” Making the experience as interactive as possible is important, he noted, because “that’s what makes it different and sets it apart from a YouTube video.”
Even as Haber was putting it all together, he had doubts as to whether it would attract clients. “I thought: Who will want to go on a virtual food tour when you can’t eat anything?”
But he has been pleasantly surprised by the level of interest, saying he’s been busier than he expected. The majority of tours have been booked privately by Jewish organizations – day schools, synagogues, federations, and private individuals and groups.
“I’m open to anyone wanting to book me and then inviting an unlimited number of family or friends to join them,” he said.
Recently, Haber offered a free tour to the family of a boy he was supposed to be guiding this month, as part of a bar-mitzvah celebration: “I offered to do something for them for free as a gift for the kid. It’s important to remember that these people are missing out on something, too. We’re not the only ones hurting.”
Haber added that he’ll keep hustling business online and – as Israel reopens domestically – will market his real-life tours to locals until the skies open again to overseas visitors.
“I believe we will weather this storm," he said, "and once we get past this thing, tourism will definitely come back and it will be at least as good as it was before, if not better.”
For his part, Musaei is equally confident that business will eventually return in force.
“It is impossible to kill tourism in Israel. Tourism can’t die in a place like Israel because people don’t just come here for a vacation. They come for a spiritual reason, even the most secular and agnostic people, and of course the religious people," he explained. “When I speak to the pastors who bring my groups, it’s not an issue of whether or not they will come back; it’s simply a question of when,” he added.
When that moment comes, the guides and tour operators are crossing their fingers that the time and care they are investing in their virtual tours will really pay off.
“The hope, when all is said and done, and when people think of actually coming to Israel, is that people will remember you," Moed said. "And remember that you were there for them during this time.”