Israel’s new tourism minister, Yoel Razvozov, who took office on Monday, has inherited the country’s only business sector that has not returned to normal in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic as tour guides are still whiling away their days at home.
Surprisingly, even though Israel has one of the highest rates of vaccination against the coronavirus in the world – and one of the lowest rates of infection – most vaccinated foreign tourists are still not yet allowed to enter the country. For those that can, Israel is the only country that requires foreign tourists to undergo blood testing to prove that they have been vaccinated.
The owners of many hotels in Israeli cities that depend upon foreign tourism – such as Tel Aviv, Nazareth and Jerusalem – are still shuttered because they have seen no reason to reopen for Israeli clientele alone, and airlines serving the country have been forced to make do almost entirely with Israeli passengers.
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During the term in office of Razvozov’s predecessor, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, the tourism sector was mainly managed by the Health Ministry. Razvozov, by contrast, will have to take matters into his own hands, as he seeks to open Israel’s borders to vaccinated foreign tourists, without requiring that they undergo antibody blood tests.
A pilot program was launched over the past few weeks, with the arrival of 20 organized groups of foreign tourists. That program is now being expanded to permit the arrival of another 1,000 tourists, also in organized groups, by the end of the month. But that’s just a fraction of the millions who normally visit the country; in 2019, the year before the pandemic began, Israel welcomed 4.55 million foreign tourists.
The 1,000 visitors slated to arrive by the end of June will be required to undergo serological antibody testing – at their own expense – at hotels in Israel where they will be quarantined pending test results.
Over the past few months, since the Israeli economy began to reopen following a succession of coronavirus-related lockdowns, there has been a sense that the Health Ministry has insisted on keeping out even vaccinated foreign tourists – while vaccinated Israelis can leave and enter the country almost without restriction – to reduce the risk that carriers of new variants would enter the country. American tour wholesalers with whom Haaretz has spoken said they cannot foresee convincing clients to undergo blood testing rather than just deferring Israel as a vacation destination.
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Just before the end of his term last week, Interior Minister Arye Dery announced that as of July 1, vaccinated tourists – from countries to be determined by the Health Ministry – will be allowed to enter the country subject to a simplified procedure. Razvozov, the new tourism minister, should make use of this opening to create an even bigger welcome mat for visitors from abroad. With the installation of a new government this week, the fate of the liberalization of the rules is unclear, particularly because no one has yet decided what the simplified procedure will look like.
The central question is whether Israel will continue to be the only country that requires tourists to take a blood test when they land to prove that they have been vaccinated. Razvozov might be able to convince the Health Ministry to ease the restriction, permitting Israel to grant recognition of vaccination certificates issued abroad, as some countries already do.
The new government’s founding principles include continued support for the tourism industry. Although most workers in this sector remain unemployed, guidelines regarding financial compensation for the industry have yet to be determined.
The Tourism Ministry’s director-general, Amir Halevi, has been in the job for eight years. His associates say that he is simply waiting to hand things over to his successor – but still doesn’t know to whom or when such a handover will take place. His considerable experience could serve the inexperienced Razvozov well. The new minister has never served as a cabinet minister until now and has no experience or knowledge when it comes to the tourism industry. He may very well want to keep Halevi at his side for at least a short while, as long as the sector remains in the throes of the crisis brought on by the coronavirus.
One major change brought about by Yariv Levin when he was tourism minister, prior to his election as Knesset speaker, was a shift from marketing Israel as a religious pilgrimage destination and highlighting its historic sites, to a fun-filled “city break” destination for a short get-a-way to Tel Aviv or Jerusalem.
A month and a half ago, the ministry, still under the helm of Farkash-Hacohen, began an advertising campaign in three target cities: Dubai, London and New York, to promote tourism to Israel. The campaign has touted Israel as a safe destination due to the high rate of vaccination in the country. In Dubai, for example, the pitch has been: “You’re vaccinated, we’re vaccinated, welcome to Israel.” Other ads relate to Israel as the Holy Land as well.
Will Razvozov place an emphasis on individual tourism or focus on organized groups? Will he try to promote tourism in the Negev in the post-COVID era, when people may be looking for wide-open spaces?
The Tourism Ministry has reinstated its program offering airlines operating in the upcoming winter season at the Ramon Airport near Eilat a subsidy of 60 euros ($73) per passenger, whether foreign or Israeli. The goal is clear: providing the airlines an incentive to maintain service at the airport in the winter, when Eilat’s hotels traditionally have low occupancy. After speaking in recent months with representatives of airlines such as low-cost carriers Ryanair and Wizz Air, ministry officials now understand that they may have to offer additional incentives, such as lower fees – at Ramon and at Ben-Gurion International Airport as well.