With little more than a day to go before American tourists are officially barred from entering Israel, 160 participants in Birthright’s free 10-day trips landed at Ben-Gurion International Airport on Monday.
The program received a special exemption from the previous overall ban on incoming tourism imposed several weeks ago when the omicron variant was identified. But now that Israel has included the United States in its list of so-called “red countries,” there will be no special exemptions for Americans.
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Israel’s cabinet expanded the list of “red countries” on Monday to include the United States, Canada, Italy, Germany, Belgium, Hungary, Morocco, Portugal, Turkey and Switzerland. The ban will take effect on Tuesday at midnight.
A total of nine Birthright groups took off from New York on Sunday and landed in Israel on Monday. They will be the last Birthright participants allowed into the country until further notice.
Like Israelis returning from travel abroad, all Birthright participants are required to spend three days in quarantine. Most Birthright trips last 10 days, but the program directors agreed to allow participants to spend a few extra days in the country to compensate them for the quarantine requirement.
The decision to exempt Birthright and other Jewish travel programs from the overall ban on incoming tourism was made by Israeli Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked. It sparked outrage in the local Christian community as pilgrim groups planning to celebrate Christmas in the Holy Land were denied entry.
According to a spokesman for Birthright, 6,500 Americans and Canadians had registered for Birthright trips scheduled for this winter season. Following the spread of the omicron variant, many cancelled their registration.
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The last Birthright groups to arrive in Israel before Monday flew in from South America at the end of November. Between May and August, when Israel had its borders open to organized tour groups, more than 4,600 young Jewish adults visited Israel on Birthright trips.
Before the coronavirus struck, Birthright typically brought about 40,000 participants on its trips to Israel every year.