As Coronavirus Ravages Israel’s Tourism Industry, Workers Find Creative Ways to Survive

From hotel employees to guides, people in tourism are suffering the most and warning about a collapse. The projected loss in the industry tops $2.7 billion

Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri
Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, March 20, 2020.
Jaffa Street in Jerusalem, March 20, 2020. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri

For several days now, Yossi Graiver, a Jerusalem tourism entrepreneur, has watched his business gradually shrink. Due to the strict instructions published by the Health Ministry on Tuesday, he no longer has any clients.

“This event came at a very critical time, when tourism in Jerusalem starts to awaken – with Passover as the high point,” he says.

As with other industries in Israel, the spread of the coronavirus has badly battered tourism, maybe worse than any other industry. Hotels have closed throughout the country, flights have been canceled, and the Health Ministry’s increasingly strict directives have kept Israelis from doing any tourism in their own country.

Graiver, 42, owns Zuzu Tourism, which runs group tours in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. At first he tried to manage the crisis by reducing the number of weekly shifts for his 50 employees, but soon he realized that some would have to go on unpaid leave. Now both he and his wife, Dorit, who also works in tourism, have no work and lots of questions.

“In the short term there’s probably no choice but to start eating our savings,” he told Haaretz, saying he hopes it ends there.

Still, Graiver, who heads a community of tourism leaders in Jerusalem, retains some optimism. If the government manages the crisis properly, businesses in Jerusalem, which are used to surviving under difficult conditions, have a fighting chance, he says. If the government doesn’t transfer money immediately to keep companies above water, many are likely to collapse.

In recent days the Graivers have been at home taking care of their four children while trying to keep their businesses going. In an attempt to generate some income, Yossi Graiver and other Jerusalem tourism operators will start issuing vouchers that clients can use when the crisis ends.

Yossi Graiver in Jerusalem, March 22, 2020. Credit: Emil Salman

“We hope it succeeds,” Graiver says. “This could bring in money immediately and provide some income to preserve the businesses.”

Nobody can predict the extent of the financial blow, or whether tourism will return to normal when the pandemic ends and flights resume. The estimated loss tops 10 billion shekels ($2.7 billion), which includes hotels, restaurants, car rentals, attractions and guides.

‘I’m helpless’

Lee Nissimov, a 48-year-old from Lod, has worked in dut- free shops at Ben-Gurion International Airport for years, and currently works at a toy store there.

Lee Nissimov.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

“The downturn began for us already a month ago when it was just starting and didn’t affect everybody yet,” she says. “They would laugh at me for wearing gloves. From one shift to the next they started noticing that there were fewer people and suddenly everybody was wearing masks. The hysteria began.”

Nissimov’s earnings depend on a percentage of sales, but she says that in recent weeks each shift has become increasingly difficult. Recently the store sold almost nothing.

“Every hour was like eight hours,” she says. “First they reduced the number of workers on each shift, but when the situation continued to deteriorate, they sent the students on unpaid leave. They tried to keep people with families, and I admire them for their concern, but in the end it reached us too.”

On Sunday, Nissimov was sent on unpaid leave after almost all activity at the duty-free shops ceased. Friends working at other airport stores were dismissed. One of her daughters, a discharged soldier who works at James Richardson, was also sent on unpaid leave.

“I’m at home frustrated, and mainly sad,” Nissimov says. “I’m a person who likes to work, so the situation is really hard for me. I’m helpless.”

She and her husband, who’s still working, have no savings or any possibility of receiving financial support from parents or siblings.

“I think we can keep going until next month at most,” she says, adding that, like many people, she has curbed her spending to the bare minimum. “We’re doing without any kind of entertainment or nonessential spending.”

‘I’ll have to find another job’

In the home of Alex Stein the worries are twofold. Stein, 38, is a full-time tour guide. His wife Meirav is in the same field and has a half-time job in another industry that hasn’t been hit yet.

Over the weekend, Stein led a tour group from the United States, only half of whose members arrived, but since then there has been no work. Cancellations wiped out his calendar for May, and he believes it’s a matter of time until the reservations for the following months are canceled, too.

“It’s hard to estimate the damages yet,” Stein says. “In the coming month, the beginning of the season, I was supposed to bring in $15,000 to $20,000, but everything’s gone now.” If not for the coronavirus, Stein would have worked for almost 30 straight days.

Alex Stein. Credit: Emil Salman

Like the Nissimovs, the Steins are tightening their belts and reducing spending. “We’re buying only food now,” Stein says. “I’m not buying books, which I usually buy a lot of. My wife probably won’t continue with the yoga course she started.”

Stein has already registered for unemployment benefits from the National Insurance Institute, but he doesn’t know how much he’ll get.

“I’m in an industry that they always say is the first to be hit but the last to revive, so every night I force myself to write one reason for optimism and one for the opposite,” he says. “For example, yesterday a group of tourists who were supposed to come informed me that they’re not canceling, only postponing to October.”

Stein knows that in the near future his savings will suffer, but he’s mainly concerned about the post-coronavirus period. “I think the recovery won’t be so fast and it will take at least two years to stabilize,” he says. “If that’s the case, and help from the government is insufficient, I think I’ll have to find another job.”

‘We buy what’s necessary’

For the past three years, Aliza Digmi has worked at the Desert Iris Hotel in Yeruham in the south, in charge of reception and reservations. Like hotels in more popular tourist regions, this venue has suffered a growing wave of cancellations.

Aliza Digmi with her husband Aharon and their three children.

If that weren’t enough, the Health Ministry directives forced management to send most employees on unpaid leave.

“They interviewed all the employees, they tried to learn about their family and financial situations so that they would harm people as little as possible,” Digmi says. Because her husband Aharon continues to work as a maintenance man in a crucial factory, she was sent on unpaid leave.

Since then Digmi, 36, is at home with her three children, who are 3, 5 and 7, trying to maintain some kind of routine. Although Aharon works he won’t be able to do overtime now, so that means less money coming in.

Digmi says the family income will fall by about half. “It’s not a war or something where you know what you’re facing,” she says. “It’s something invisible that’s hurting everyone. It’s not simple, you’re staying home after three years of a routine. The children are young and it isn’t easy.”

The Digmis, too, have decided to reduce their spending. “We buy what’s necessary – food and basic things,” she says.

They’ve given up going out every other week, and she’s no longer going to her weekly fitness class. The couple have no savings but have received help from an unexpected source: Their landlord told them he didn’t plan to charge them for the coming month.

“We don’t have parents who can help, we both have to work in order to survive,” Digmi says. “If this situation continues for more than a month or two I assume we’ll go down. The landlord can’t always waive the rent, and home spending will grow because we’re always home. I really hope it disappears as soon as possible, but I’m skeptical.”

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