The arrivals hall at Ben Gurion Airport was packed over the Passover holiday. But for Israel’s tourism industry, that doesn’t point to good times ahead for the summer season.
Global travel is still running at much lower levels than before the coronavirus pandemic and Israel remains handicapped by its unusually strict COVID-testing rules for incoming tourism, say industry executives.
“Israel is one of the last countries in the world to require testing on arrival,” says Oni Amiel, CEO of the incoming-tourism operator Amiel Tours.
That’s frustrating, he says, because in every other respect Israel is well-positioned to enjoy a tourism rebound – but the testing requirement is a big barrier. “Everyday we don’t say we’re open and back in business, people will grow more disappointed,” he notes.
At between 60 and 80 shekels ($18 and $24) a person, Israel’s testing requirement adds to the already hefty cost of an Israeli vacation and takes time. Until they get back their results, tourists are in theory supposed to quarantine for 24 hours. If they test positive, their vacation is at risk of being ruined.
“Definitely this is a barrier,” says Eran Ketter, an Israel-based tourism expert who recently led a survey for the European Travel Commission examining Europeans’ travel plans. “People aren’t worried about catching COVID, but they are worried about quarantine – they don’t want to be stuck somewhere for who knows how long.”
Yossi Fattal, CEO of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association, estimates that less than 1 percent of arriving tourists do test positive at Ben Gurion Airport. But for travelers and tour organizers, each case involves a lot of bureaucracy, confusion and disappointment, he says.
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The Health Ministry is examining easing or even eliminating testing, but some officials have warned against acting too quickly and dismantling a testing infrastructure that might have to be reestablished quickly from scratch if another COVID variant emerges.
The dilemma is compounded by the fact that in many of the countries tourists are coming from, testing is being wound down to the point where it is getting hard for many tourists to get a pre-flight test.
Trickle to a streamlet
Around the world, international travel has been slowly clawing its way back to pre-pandemic levels. However, in February (the last month for which figures are available), it was still down close to 60 percent from its level three years earlier, according to the International Air Transport Association.
In Israel, the trickle of tourists who defied the pandemic disruptions and visited in 2020 and 2021 has gradually grown into a streamlet. At the peak of the coronavirus, monthly arrivals fell to as few as 600 during the first lockdown in April 2020. The figure climbed in the second half of last year, and jumped suddenly to 167,000 in March as the war raged in Ukraine.
There are no official numbers yet for April, but Ben Gurion Airport was jam-packed around holiday time.
That Passover surge, however, doesn’t portend a real revival of tourism, say industry executives. The kind of travelers who came for the holiday are dedicated Israel visitors: people often with friends or family in Israel, Christian pilgrims, or others who had been anxiously waiting for a chance to fly over and were willing to put up with the COVID red tape, Amiel says.
In any case, notes Fattal, the number of arrivals was still far below the 428,000 who visited during the last pre-pandemic Passover of April 2019. He expects tourist arrivals this summer to be about half their 2019 levels.
Fattal doesn’t believe COVID testing is that big an issue; for him, it’s the supply-demand imbalance: After being bottled up at home for more than two years, people all over the world are keen to travel again – but the aviation sector can’t accommodate them.
“Airports and airlines simply don’t have the capacity they had in 2019; there are fewer planes and less availability,” he says. “Airports cannot absorb the same numbers that they did in 2019. There is a problem of human resources all over the world, a serious lack of workers.”
That is certainly the case at Ben Gurion Airport, where big numbers of departing tourists and even bigger numbers of Israelis traveling abroad led to ferocious lines at check-in last month. Not only does the airport have about 25 percent fewer staff than it did pre-COVID. Travelers also need to present more documentation to travel than before the pandemic, which slows boarding procedures. A lot of ticket counters are now being used by the Health Ministry, making them unavailable for check-in at all.
Amiel says that if the government does ease or eliminate COVID testing even this late in the game – less than two months before the start of the summer travel season – Israel has a chance of boosting its summer tourism numbers, because people are making their travel plans less far in advance than they did before the pandemic.
The Russians are coming
For world tourism, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine threatens to be a setback, preventing airlines from using Russian airspace on long-haul routes and raising fuel costs. These get passed on to travelers in higher airfares, says Ketter, who is on the faculty of Kinneret Academic College in the Galilee.
But he says Israel should be largely shielded from the war because of its distance from the fighting and most routes to the country aren’t affected by Russian airspace issues. The war may even give Israel a boost as Americans shun destinations they think are too close to the war zone, mainly Eastern Europe, and look for alternatives.
Perhaps surprisingly, Russian tourism to Israel may grow as well. In 2019, before the onset of COVID, Russia was the third-largest source of tourism to Israel, accounting for 8 percent of arrivals. Today, the Russian middle class is feeling the pinch of an economic downturn created by sanctions, but direct flights between Israel and Russia continue to operate.
“Russians who want to go on holiday don’t have many options – a lot of countries aren’t welcoming Russians and no longer have direct flights,” says Ketter, adding that many Jewish Russians may visit on a tourist visa to explore immigration options.
On balance, even if 2022 won’t be a banner year for Israel, it is on track for a faster recovery than many other parts of the world.
“In Europe, for example, because of the war they have postponed expectations of the market’s coming back to pre-pandemic levels to the beginning of 2024. But in Israel, we believe that at the beginning of 2023 we will be close to maximum capacity. The demand is there – the question is whether there will be enough flights,” Fattal says.
Amiel agrees. “I’m already betting on a very busy year next year. We are recruiting staff and opening an internal school for training [travel professionals]. I’m very optimistic.” Among other things, he is planning a Christian music and cultural festival in the Galilee for June 2023 called Gallelujah.
In the meantime, Israelis have been boarding planes for foreign destinations at a much faster pace than many others. In the first quarter, outgoing tourism outpaced incoming tourism by a ratio of more than three to one: 303,400 tourist arrivals compared with 993,400 departures. That was down by a third compared with first-quarter 2019, but far less than the 70 percent plunge in arrivals.
Fattal says he’s not surprised by the imbalance: “Our economy is in a better situation than a lot of other countries. Anyhow, Israelis are known for their desire to travel.”