In February 2020, Israel identified the first confirmed case of a tourist with COVID-19, in a group of South Koreans. It set off alarms, and within a few weeks there was a nary a tourist on the streets of Tel Aviv or at Jerusalem’s holy places. Reservations were canceled and the tourism industry ground to a halt.
Today, Israel is in another place entirely. Israel has the world’s highest vaccination rates, illness rates are falling and restaurants and hotels have reopened. Starting Sunday, the regulation capping the number of Israeli citizens who can enter the country at 3,000 a day will end, after the High Court of Justice found it unconstitutional.
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But the local tourism industry is still waiting for a green light. Discussions between the health and tourism ministries on easing restrictions have stalled amid fears that tourists will bring with them dangerous variants of the coronavirus.
Yossi Fattal, CEO of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association, said the authorities are being too cautious. “All those countries to which vaccinated Israelis can go, their vaccinated tourists should be allowed to come here,” he said.
“There shouldn’t be any difference between an Israeli who’s vaccinated and travels to Europe and meets a local who’s also gotten the Pfizer vaccine,” Fattal said. “If the two want to fly back to Israel on the same plane, there’s no reason not to let him in. Countries that let Israelis in want their tourists to be able to come here.”
The problem is that there is no global system in place for verifying if an international traveler has been inoculated. Israelis who are vaccinated in the United States and other countries are required when they return home to go into quarantine, from which they can only leave after taking a serological test confirming the presence of antibodies.
The International Air Transport Association has been working intensively for several months on a pilot program that would be used by 20 leading airlines, such as Singapore Airlines. El Al is supposed to take part.
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Identifying the passenger by his or her passport number, the IATA Travel Pass application will consolidate all the relevant information and documents required to present to the airline before traveling internationally, including a vaccination certificate and coronavirus test results.
Kobi Zussman, country manager of IATA Israel, said the organization is in talks with the Health Ministry about linking the information the country’s health maintenance organizations hold to the system. However, the travel pass is currently on a trial basis only. It involves sharing sensitive medical data with a global organization, raising tough privacy issues that must be overcome.
Tourism Ministry attaches abroad say foreign travel agents want to bring tourists back to Israel. Reservations are being made at Israeli hotels for September by groups that had canceled a year ago and are anxious to come.
“There are already defined groups of vaccinated people that we could bring, provided that the government decided they can,” said Tourism Ministry Director General Amir Halevi.
“Tel Aviv is a very strong product in the vaccinated city-sea category, we shouldn’t be missing this opportunity,” he said.
“Airlines want to return to Israel quickly because the Israeli market is a good one and profitable – the number of Israelis traveling abroad is high and the airlines want to reopen routes. Everyone is waiting for the moment they can resume flights here.”
Fattal said that it was important to know how the entry rules for tourists will work, not just when they will be readmitted.
“Will people be confirmed that they are vaccinated while they are still abroad? Will Israel require testing, and if so which kind? Tourism organizations need to start marketing three months in advance. They need to know so they can already start telling travelers what will be required,” said Fattal.
“This isn’t like a falafel stand where you can decide [policy] a day before reopening it,” he said.
Added another tourism industry executive, who spoke on condition of anonymity: “It’s ridiculous for the government to encourage Israelis to travel abroad for vacations but doesn’t let vaccinated tourists in. Other countries are welcoming Israelis even without quarantine. They reached tourism agreements with Greece and Cyprus, but while Israelis can fly to Greece, Greeks can’t come here.”
Meanwhile, Israel has halted all tourism marketing for the past year. Without a national budget, there’s no money to pay for it in any event. The Tourism Ministry aspires to market Israel as the first destination for travel-hungry tourists as the pandemic winds down because of the country’s high vaccination rate. Recently it began a public relations campaign to that effect, including advertorials. In the next few weeks, an online campaign is expected to kick off, featuring short videos distributed over social media. One will show how Israel has returned to normal life, with restaurants and other travel venues reopened and filled with people.
“We want the first or second place that people go to for their first vacation after the coronavirus to be Israel,” said a Tourism Ministry official who concedes that officials are concerned about overemphasizing the vaccine angle. “We’re undecided about how much prominence to give to vaccination in a campaign like this because we don’t want to look too arrogant.”
He noted that the vaccination issue has elicited antisemitic comments on social media that a campaign like that might fan.”We’ll probably go with Israel being safe for tourists, both in terms of vaccines and terrorism.”