Tourists Return to Israel, Exactly When Omicron Takes Over the Country

Israel has officially reopened its borders to tourists, yet many tourists are staying away as COVID infection rates skyrocket. But that doesn’t mean no one is planning to visit

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The deserted arrivals hall at Ben Gurion Airport last month.
The deserted arrivals hall at Ben Gurion Airport last month.Credit: Eyal Toueg

Bursting with enthusiasm, a new website launched this week by Israel’s Tourism Ministry declared to foreign visitors that “We are proud and excited to welcome you back!”

The site, at the reassuring URL safe.israel.travel, made its debut after Israel’s borders were once again open to tourists who say they have received a second or third vaccine within the last six months.

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On the ground, however, despite pent-up demand following two years of closed borders, tourists are hardly rushing to visit. After all, COVID-19 infection rates across the country are skyrocketing and hospitals are beginning to fill with seriously ill patients, as government officials predict millions of cases before the omicron wave is finished.  

“People are voting with their feet and tourists are not coming or planning to come in significant numbers right now, especially in groups,” said Mark Feldman, CEO of veteran travel agent Ziontours. “Many people are scared of coming here and getting sick. That’s tremendously dampening any plans to come,” he added. 

The only bookings Feldman has seen since last week’s announcement are from family members, businesspeople, and others with personal connections that are strong enough to risk a trip to a country that is now as “red” as any on the planet. Two pro-Israel lobbies with scheduled trips to Israel in the coming weeks – AIPAC and J Street – are still planning to travel.  

But even Birthright Israel, which sponsors free 10-day heritage trips to Israel for young Jews around the world, is hesitant. Birthright tours were quickly organized and resumed last November, when vaccinated tourists were first permitted to reenter Israel. When the gates were shut at the end of that month, after omicron made its debut on the world stage, prescheduled Birthright trips were controversially given special permission to enter after other foreigners were kept out. 

This time around, the group is proceeding with caution. For now, all Birthright trips are on hold “until the beginning of February, at the earliest,” a spokesperson told Haaretz, adding: “It’s going to depend on where the infection rates go in the next few weeks.”

Overall, the level of interest in traveling to Israel is far lower than when the country reopened last November, when many individuals and groups eagerly planned to spend the Hanukkah and Christmas holidays in the Holy Land. According to Feldman, even in the best of times January is a low point when it comes to travel, with the winter holidays in the past and spring holidays many months away. Several major airlines, including Air Canada and Cathay Pacific, already announced they will not be resuming flights to Israel until March. 

“The world at large is very worried about travel and omicron,” said Elisa Moed, CEO of Travelujah, a company that specializes in tours for Christians in Israel. “Until we’re on the other side of this variant, I don’t think we’re going to see any marked increase in demand. There’s too much uncertainty now,” she added.

Determined tourists

There are, however, exceptions to the rule: a small minority of determined tourists.

Tessie and Mark Mayo, a couple in their 50s from Texas, spent Sunday traveling from their small town of Brownwood to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and checking in to take a long-awaited and much-delayed vacation in Israel. 

Mark and Tessie Mayo, a Texan couple in their 50s, awaiting their flight to Israel at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport yesterday.Credit: Courtsey of Tessie Mayo

The Mayos visited Israel with a church group in November 2019, had “an incredible experience” and felt a “spiritual connection,” and immediately knew they wanted to return on their own, said Tessie Mayo.  

“We started planning our trip in 2020 – we wanted to go that May, but then the coronavirus hit hard. We rebooked for May 2021, but then Israel shut down right after we booked our tickets. Luckily, the tickets we booked through Delta could be used until the end of 2022 and we tried again in October, but Israel was still closed. Then we rebooked in November – but it turned out our booster shot didn’t match the required timeline in Israel. So we booked again for January 10.

“We could have used this airfare voucher for other things, gone to other places. But there was something about Israel – we knew we needed to go one more time,” she said.

When Israel closed its borders to foreigners when omicron hit at the beginning of December, Tessie said she cried upon hearing the news. “I definitely thought that was it.”

The couple decided not to cancel their reservations, though, and their hopes rebounded when they heard last week that Israel might reopen in time for their trip.

When the news broke, they hurriedly began packing and taking their COVID tests – even though “our kids think we’re crazy.” 

Awaiting her flight in Dallas, Tessie said they were looking forward to touring the Galilee, Dead Sea and Jerusalem, despite the risks.

“Our big concern is that we’ll test positive in Ben Gurion Airport, and we’re taking every precaution to try to make sure that doesn’t happen,” Tessie said. “My husband is a nurse and he works with it every day. We’ve both had COVID and been vaccinated. We aren’t as worried about physically getting sick as we are about getting trapped” and not being able to see the country. 

After months of assisting family members of Israeli citizens to enter the country for life-cycle events, Ariella Bernstein, administrator of the Facebook group Reunite Olim with Their Families, said she feels obligated to warn those who are now considering visiting the country – even for compelling reasons – that they are taking a risk. 

Procedurally, Israel has essentially returned to the way entry was handled in November. Those who want to enter must fill out an entry form within 48 hours of their flight, declaring that they have been vaccinated with at least two shots, and write in the dates. At no point are they asked to show documentation of their vaccines. A government form that existed previously, giving them the option of uploading that documentation, has disappeared from the Health Ministry website and tourists are no longer being asked to submit it. 

“I don’t think they care anymore,” said Bernstein, given that Green Pass restrictions have become less relevant with the rise of omicron, which is the most infectious variant yet. 

An existing problem with entry she predicts will only intensify in the coming months is the issue of travelers who have recovered from COVID – a number that grows exponentially as omicron sweeps through the world. 

A passenger exiting Ben Gurion Airport last month.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

While no longer infectious after 11 days, many people who recovered may continue to test positive for several more weeks. Israel is permitting those recovered from COVID to board a plane without testing, if they show a positive test from 11 days ago or longer. But no one who lands at Ben Gurion Airport is exempt from taking a PCR test upon entry. And that is where the problem of recovered tourists who still test positive will begin. 

If they test positive, they will be required to quarantine for two weeks, unless they can get hold of a Health Ministry official, show them the documentation of their recovery, and be released from quarantine. Doing so – as anyone who has attempted to communicate with the Health Ministry recently can attest – is no simple matter. 

“If you’re recovered, you can test positive upon arrival and be stuck in quarantine,” Bernstein explained. “Or you can get infected while in Israel and you’re also stuck: you can’t fly home until you complete a 10-day quarantine. There are people out there who are still coming in no matter what, and they’ll be angry and upset if it happens to them. They have to understand that we aren’t open right now because things are safe. We’re only open because we’re as ‘red’ as America and other countries. I’m telling people, ‘If you don’t want to take the risk of getting sick in a foreign country, don’t come.’”

Feldman puts it even more bluntly. “You’re a fool to come to this country if you’re recovered and think there’s a chance you’ll test positive when you get here. And there’ll always be a chance that you’ll test positive before your flight home and you won’t be able to leave.” 

Biggest barrier

Beyond the omicron wave, long-term planning for spring and summer travel – presuming the omicron variant peaks and fades away, and isn’t replaced by another variant – is problematic for other reasons. 

As Israeli regulations currently stand, tourists may only enter the country if they are “fully vaccinated” under the country’s definition of having had their second or third shot within the past six months. By the time peak travel season rolls around in March and April, the vast majority of potential tourists will not qualify. 

Amy Freeman Chartoff, from Ridgefield, New Jersey, said she has her fingers crossed for her planned visit in March, and hopes Israel will be more flexible with its vaccination requirements. Chartoff, 65, received her booster last September and is hoping to see her daughter in the northern city of Beit She’an.

“Normally I would travel to Israel several times a year and my daughter would come here, but that hasn’t happened since COVID,” she said. “Hopefully everything will work out, but you never know. If I have to, I’ll figure out a way to get a fourth vaccine.”

Feldman, though, believes the biggest barrier to a full-scale tourism revival is political, not epidemiological. He thinks Prime Minister Naftali Bennett “created a dangerous precedent in that we close our doors so quickly to tourists” whenever a new variant appears in the world. 

It was traumatic, he said, when the government “sucker punched” those who had travel booked in December.

The Ziontours CEO noted that airlines refused to refund travelers whose trips were canceled, because the Israeli government was closed to foreigners last month. They only offered vouchers as compensation, saying they were not responsible for government policy, “and no one got a penny back.” It’s impossible, he said, to purchase travel insurance that covers last-minute changes in government policy. 

Looking ahead, Feldman wonders how he can “plan trips for people in the spring, knowing that a new variant may appear in the coming months and again we’re going to close our borders. I can’t, in good conscience, ask people to book their trips for Passover and Easter, knowing [the government] might do the same thing all over again. It would be irresponsible. Our government refuses to state a policy when it comes to their future behavior. Until they do, you won’t see a surge of tourism in the spring and summer.”

In the meantime, Feldman is not refusing to book future travel – it is, after all, his business. But he says he makes every effort to be “upfront” with his clients about the history of Israel’s behavior and the risks they may be taking. 

“I use two words every single time: buyer beware.” 

Moed agreed that Israel’s reputation as a destination has been harmed by the government’s actions. 

“I think there’s a real concern that we have set a precedent that we can open and close too arbitrarily. Travel professionals who plan a year or two in advance want to work with places that are reliable. There’s a sense of concern out there that Israel is no longer perceived as such. Our government is going to have to work hard to counter that, and we’ll have to win back partners abroad we’ve worked with for years: Convince them we’re good for the long haul and that if you book a trip to Israel, it’s going to happen.” 

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