Israel’s struggling tourism sector hopes to reap quick benefits when the country reopens next month now that its vaccination campaign seems to have contained the coronavirus.
Airlines are racing to add flights to Ben-Gurion International Airport as groups of foreign tourists who have been vaccinated against COVID-19 will be allowed into Israel from May 23.
“As we look to the world reopening and travel resuming, the Italies and Frances are a little behind Israel in terms of when we anticipate travel will reopen. And that’s due to vaccines,” said Brian Znotins, vice president of network and schedule planning at American Airlines, referring to two other tourist destinations.
Israel, which has vaccinated more than half its population, sees its main challenge as ensuring its reopening does not allow a resurgence of COVID-19 infections.
“We do not want to risk any of the variants that might come into Israel and jeopardize normalcy,” Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen told Reuters.
But, describing Israel as the first country to exit the pandemic, she said it “should harness this advantage to our economic and tourism benefit.”
The concerns about preventing another rise in infections mean Israel is initially opening only to small groups of tourists. It could take at least until July for all classes of tourists to be allowed to come.
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Other problems facing the Israeli and global tourism sector include convincing people it is safe to travel and the quarantine requirements in many countries for people returning from abroad. Israel will also face competition from other countries planning to open, such as Greece.
With the biggest percentage of tourists to Israel coming from the United States, American Airlines is launching flights from New York in early May and from Miami a month later, using Boeing 777 aircraft grounded during the pandemic.
“We have these wide bodies and not much else to do with them,” Znotins told Reuters. “We think Tel Aviv will outperform the rest of the transatlantic market.”
American Airlines plans to launch a Dallas-Fort Worth to Tel Aviv route in October on Boeing 787 aircraft.
United Airlines, which has 13 weekly flights from Newark and San Francisco, will in May add three flights from Chicago and two more from Newark. Flights from Washington will resume later this year. Delta Air Lines and Israel’s flag carrier, El Al, are also adding flights.
“Opening of the skies is a true message to going back to normality,” said Farkash-Hacohen.
After a record 4.55 million tourists in 2019, just 832,000 visited in 2020 – mainly in January and February – resulting in a loss of $5.3 billion of revenue last year, the Tourism Ministry said. In 2019, travel and tourism contributed 5.9% of Israel’s gross domestic product, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council.
Israel reopened its economy a month ago after a third lockdown sharply reduced infections and is now allowing visits by immediate family members from abroad.
“There’s pent-up demand of people motivated to start traveling – people that have not seen their parents, grandparents and families for the last year, year and a half, two years,” said Ronen Nissenbaum, CEO of the Dan Hotel chain.
He expected a relatively quick return to good levels of occupancy.
Travelers will need to have negative PCR tests before boarding and serological tests on arrival at Ben-Gurion. Israel is discussing with other countries how to validate vaccination certificates.
“It’s the gate to the country, and possibly also a gate for [COVID-19] mutations,” said Yoram Keness, a founder at Omega Israel, which runs the airport’s testing lab at Ben-Gurion.
He said tests giving results within 10 hours would provide “control of everything that enters the country.”