Israel's Tour Guides Go Virtual During Pandemic but Long for pre-COVID Days

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Israeli tour guide Dor Pintel
Israeli tour guide Dor PintelCredit: Dor Pintel

At the start of 2020, Israel’s 6,000 tour guides were looking forward to a record five million tourist arrivals. Hundreds of thousands would be led through archeological sites, given lectures on the Bible and Zionism, and directed to the best restaurants and bars. Guides who specialize in domestic tourism managed to survive the year by offering socially distant tours between lockdowns. But for the guides who work with incoming tourists the year has been a disaster. Many have concluded that tourism won’t be back anytime soon and are starting to look for other work.

“We have no idea how many tour guides are working today or how many have been lost to other professions,” said Yoni Shapira, chairman of Moreshet Derech, the Israel Incoming Tourist Guide Association. “We are losing high-quality people. I know that many of them have started to work in virtual tourism, but that’s not real tourism.”

Virtual tourism is giving tours online through video-sharing programs, such as Zoom. The guide provides short films, photographs or other visual elements to participants, mimicking the kind of trips he would be taking them on if they were actually in Israel.

“Virtual tourism can help maintain a connection with customers, but it’s not enough. To make enough money over time, you need attractions, hotels, restaurants and so forth,” said Shapira, who adds angrily that the Tourism Ministry could be doing something to help and hasn’t.

“They should enable guides to give lectures abroad through ministry tourism bureaus around the world. That way, we could keep people interested in the Israeli tourism product,” he said.

In fact, the ministry has been trying to help guides make some money. In a project with the Israel Nature and Parks Authority budgeted at 10 million shekels ($3.1 million), it has been offering the Israeli public free tours in accordance with coronavirus rules. Some 300 guides have participated.

But that hardly makes a dent at a time when tourism has dried up, and the ministry has no other plans to help Israel’s struggling tour guides.

Although the vast majority are self-employed, tour guides qualify for unemployment benefits so long as they don’t own a vehicle used to transport tourists. That rule has been eased recently and from next month the vehicle-exemption is being dropped, but the government’s extended jobless benefits for all Israelis expire in June just as the summer tourism season would normally be getting underway.

Shapira said a guide can earn $250-350 a day. In good years, like 2019, any are working nonstop during peak seasons and can bring home up to $7,000 a month. Here are the stories of how four guides are managing:

En Afek Nature Reserve in IsraelCredit: Uri Erlich

Greek wisdom

Shahar Gofer, a Tel Aviv-based guide with 12 years experience, said he realized that the pandemic was going to be a problem that wouldn’t go away quickly was when he was ordered into two-week quarantine after coming into contact with a group of Greek travelers who tested positive for the virus. Gofer specializes in trips to Egypt and as recently as last February he was leading groups there. “We were on a Nile cruise, and everyone was talking about the cruise ship in Japan quarantined because of COVID,” he said.

In March, everything changed – all his bookings for the next six months were canceled. He signed up for unemployment but quickly realized that he wouldn’t be able to live on unemployment benefits and grants to the self-employed for very long. Gofer had a teaching certificate and began working at a school teaching history.

But in his free time, he also planned for the future by starting a Facebook page called “Ancient Egypt.” Today, it counts 8,000 followers that Gofer hopes will one day turn into customers for tours. He is also beefing up his knowledge by enrolling in a course in Egyptology.

“Thanks to the coronavirus, I have the time to improve myself. I decided I would get ready for the day when I can begin guiding again. I concluded that the pandemic could be a huge opportunity. The big problem for us tour guides is that we’re always in the field and we have no time to get better at what we do. You need to be able to sit at home to learn and get better, and that’s what I’m doing,” said Gofer.

Another new undertaking for him is leading virtual tours of Egypt. Gofer conducted his first one last Passover in place of the real tour he had planned for the holiday season. “I gave a lecture called ‘Was the exodus from Egypt real or just a myth?’ and 300 people registered for it through Facebook. Today I’m doing a virtual Nile cruise with pictures and videos that I shot in the past. People really go for the experience on Zoom.”

Israeli tour guide Ariel ZangCredit: Liel Zang

“Virtual tourism has become very popular. There are people working in it full time and they give lectures in front of 400 and 500 people each time. These are guides that specialize in a lot of destinations, so they can give a lot of talks,” he said. At a time when air travel is difficult, if possible at all, demand for virtual tours has been growing. Even travel companies have begun offering them. Gofer said he hopes his virtual tours will bring him real tourists when travel resumes.

First to fall, last to rise

Dor Pintel, 33, had been warned when he studying to be a tour guide that the business was a tough one.

“The first thing they tight us in the tour guide course was that when a crisis occurs, tourism is the first industry to suffer and the last one to recover,” he said. When the coronavirus struck, Pintel was ready: “I quickly realized that it would take a least two years before tourism revived and that for the foreseeable future I’d have nothing to live on. I decided I needed to do something to advance myself - I was in survival mode. I can always go back to being a guide later.”

Part of Pintel’s problem was that he didn’t qualify for unemployment because he had a vehicle he used for his business. “I was depressed about, but since I became involved in my new business I haven’t had time to look back,” he said.

Together with a partner, he started a website called “Touch the Field” that lets users order fresh produce straight from the farm. It’s not a new idea, but Pintel knows the farm business because he worked as a teen in his uncle’s mango groves, which made it easier to build the connections he needed. “When the coronavirus came and all my bookings were canceled, my friend interested me in the [website] idea. I got interested because it brought me back to that world,” he said.

“I didn’t know a thing about the fruit and vegetable trade. We started the business from zero and it’s working well. I can’t say it’s bringing me the same kind of income tour-guiding did, but it’s a way to make a living,” Pintel said. The business is limited to farm products from western Galilee because they can’t ship orders from elsewhere. “We’re looking to do more. I’m already working hard – 14 hours a day, but that’s nothing new for me. In tourism, the work was also intense. Maybe in some ways, it was better for me to stop,” he said.

Feeling at a dead end

Ariel Zang is a victim of poor timing. At 52, he had been working for 19 years in high-tech, but a year before the pandemic erupted he decided to go back to tour guiding. Record numbers of tourists were coming to Israel and the decision seemed to make sense. “Before I was in high-tech, I was a tour guide for five years,” he said. “I made the transition back easily, I got customers quickly and everything was just great, but then the coronavirus came and put a spoke in my wheels. It interrupted everything,” said Zang.

Already during the first lockdown nearly a year ago, Zang realized he would have to change direction. “I felt that I was traveling a road that had reached a dead end. I had a lot of experience tour guiding and I know how to speak in front of a group, so I decided to leverage that,” which he did by giving courses on how to successfully give remote lectures. “Often people don’t know how to make a story interesting and the audience gives up quickly on them. I wrote a 60-page guide and began giving lectures over Zoom – how to correctly build presentations, how to use your voice to emphasize something and how to get the audience’s attention,” explained Zang.

He also started a project to teach young people how to give bar and bat mitzvah speeches over Zoom together with pictures and blessings from the family. “That’s how I’m surviving the coronavirus,” he said. “Creativity sometimes arises out of suffering. Maybe I’m not making as much money as before, but it’s something I can live on.”

Still, Zang looks at his projects as a bridge until tour-guiding comes back. “I miss being out of doors and really want to go back to being a tour guide. But it will take a long time for tourists to come back to Israel,” he said. Not all his colleagues have succeeded in adapting. “A lot of tour guides are sitting at home and surviving on unemployment. I see what they are up to in WhatsApp groups and they’re bored. There are programs that enable guides to retrain as a teacher, but an older person who worked all his life in tourism can’t just start teaching children.”

Back to the classroom

Chana Koren, who had been guiding for 13 years before COVID arrived, remembers her last group – four couples from the United States who had been planning their trip for two years and were determined to go ahead with it despite the pandemic. Their only concession was to cut it from two-and-a-half weeks to one.

For the next six months, Koren was without work and the unemployment allowance she was getting was nothing more than “pocket money” in her words. “You can eat into your savings, but it’s better to find a job. I can’t sit at home all day and do nothing. I looked for other work and found a program that enabled guides to teach in schools,” she said.

Israeli tour guide Chana KorenCredit: Chana Koren

Last September, she began teaching arithmetic, English and religion to third graders at a state-religious school. “I had a little experience, enough to meet the Education Ministry’s criteria. It’s been really nice. I like little children and if I didn’t have this job, I don’t know what I would have done all this year. It gave me air to breathe.”

But Koren’s problems aren’t over. Her teaching assignment for now is temporary and she is worried about the future of tourism. “I’ve signed up for a course on how to do virtual tourism,” she said. “We’ll show them Israel from a chair. We’re learning how to build a presentation, to photograph and how to use software to help people visit Israel without leaving their homes,” Koren said. “I’m planning to travel up north to make videos and take photographs for my presentation and the virtual tours I want to conduct. That’s what I love doing. When the coronavirus fades, I won’t remain in education. If the tourists return, I want to guide them.”

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