U.S. Travelers Scramble to Get to Israel Before Quarantine Is Introduced

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Passengers arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport recently, on their way for a COVID test before leaving the arrivals hall.
Passengers arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport recently, on their way for a COVID test before leaving the arrivals hall. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

When Israel announced Tuesday that arrivals from 18 countries including the United States would have to quarantine for a week, it set off a wave of trip cancellations and a scramble to enter the country before the August 11 deadline.

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For Laura Ben David, an American resident of the West Bank settlement of Tekoa, the new regulations almost derailed plans for her son Eitan’s wedding on August 17. She was forced to procure new tickets for relatives suddenly faced with the prospect of sitting out the celebration in isolation.

“We’re scrambling to get them in before the mandatory quarantine kicks in, and it’s going to cost a lot in both airline fees and missed work,” Ben David said, calling the new rules “arbitrary and ridiculous.”

“All of a sudden they spring this on us out of the blue,” she added, describing how her younger son Ezra, who is working at an American summer camp following his discharge from the army, had to spend nearly $1,000 to change his ticket at the last minute. “They’re really close. There’s no way in the world we could do the wedding without Ezra there.”

As she put it, “People have lives and plans, and it seems that very little consideration goes into that. Meanwhile, you have people who totally flaunt the rules, break actual quarantine and get other people sick.”

On Tuesday, a Knesset panel approved the measure for travelers arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport regardless of vaccination status or age. The move was initially set for this Friday, but the Health Ministry, beset by criticism, pushed it off five days. Arrivals from the United States, Greece, Italy, Germany and several other countries will have to go into quarantine for seven days.

Even though Prime Minister Naftali Bennett recommended in June that Israelis avoid nonessential trips abroad, that month saw 301,000 passengers flying out of Ben-Gurion – a record for the pandemic months.

Israel recorded almost 3,300 new coronavirus cases Tuesday, with 236 of those patients in serious condition, the Health Ministry said. On Tuesday, a slew of tightened restrictions were announced, including gatherings limited to people with proof of some immunity and a recommendation to work from home. These rules will go into effect Sunday. 

Speaking from upstate New York, Ezra Ben David said he realized that the delta variant was “more infectious than what we’ve seen so far and I understand that certain steps must be taken, especially when we’re talking about saving people’s lives.” But he just wants to make it to his brother’s wedding.

“If I would’ve known in advance that any of this would be the circumstances of my trip, I never would have flown,” he said.

New arrivals heading for a COVID test or exiting Ben-Gurion Airport recently.Credit: Emil Salman

'Give fair warning'

For Ariana Berlin, a recently engaged American immigrant living in Jerusalem, the past 24 hours since the announcement of the new rules have been “extremely hectic.”

“My parents and sister were supposed to come to meet my fiancé for the first time, landing Friday next week. [We] successfully moved my parents’ flight to arrive Monday, but now my sister can’t come,” she said.

“And my dad is a doctor and needs to change his entire medical office’s schedule. The new flights were very expensive, and coming in for the extra time also means they need to pay more for lodging as well.” 

And while, like the Ben Davids, she acknowledged the need for measures to mitigate the spread of the virus, she took issue with the way they have been rolled out.

“I understand the need to restore the quarantine laws, but the government needs to give fair warning. Also, they didn’t update the travelers; the airlines didn’t update travelers. I just found out everything on Facebook,” she said. 

“I have friends getting married next week and now their parents might end up being in quarantine during the wedding.”

On Facebook groups catering to English-speaking immigrants, some users expressed confusion regarding the new rules, while others complained about canceled trips. 

“It’s super frustrating,” one user posted about his impending quarantine. “It’s seriously going to mess me up in regards to medical appointments and whatnot.”

In an email, Kfir Shwarz, the general manager of Ahalan Olympus Tours, told Haaretz that while before the new rules “it was almost impossible” to bring in tour groups, “now it’s completely impossible.”

Mark Feldman, the CEO of Ziontours, agreed, saying that many travelers saw the new rules as a slap in the face and had “canceled their plans completely.”

“Every single group has canceled. It’s not a 90 percent drop, it’s a 100 percent drop,” he said, adding that many individual travelers “have completely changed their tickets,” freezing them “until the winter.”

If someone is coming in for less than a week to celebrate a family event, they’re highly unlikely to be willing to add seven days to the trip, he continued, calling the new rules “nothing short of a catastrophe.” He noted that while Bennett had kept his promise to keep the airport open, he “massively dropped the number of tourists who will come into this country.”

A spokeswoman for the Israeli travel agency association said that the new regulations “have not yet come into effect, so it’s too early to speak in terms of an immediate impact on incoming tourism from the United States. But there is no doubt that in the long run the new regulations may have a significant impact on orders and numbers of tourists coming to Israel.”

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