Yaacov Abeksis, 54, is a tour guide and the owner of a small travel business that employs a few full-time staff and scores of freelancers. He founded the business roughly five years ago, starting with educational tourism for foreign visitors and expanding to pilgrim tourism and business trips. He has guided thousands of visitors, mainly from Latin America.
This year was supposed to be his best year ever, but then came the coronavirus and the lockdown, all but wiping out tourism.
“Since March my company has had zero revenues. There are no reservations from overseas for the short to medium term and we have no plan for the long term,” said Abeksis, who is one of between 4,000 and 5,000 active tour guides in Israel.
“It’s not just incoming tourism, the domestic Israeli market – mostly an institutional market of workers’ committees, educational institutions, community centers and pension groups – has ceased. We tried to get into it, but it was pointless.”
He says it will be a long time before the tourism market recovers, and in the meantime, the industry is undergoing a significant downsizing.
The decision by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Finance Minister Yisrael Katz to extend unemployment benefits until June 2021 or until the jobless rate falls below 10% was made only after it was clear the coronavirus would be with us for another year. Netanyahu said Israel’s coronavirus policy would be like an “accordion,” with measures coming and going as needed.
The problem is that a lot of businesses and industries don’t operate like an accordion – when they shut down it’s forever. Tourism is one such sector.
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The coronavirus came in March, the industry shut down and still hasn’t reopened. The airlines are facing bankruptcy. The hotels are in somewhat better shape because maybe they can survive with domestic tourism. Many independent operators and small businesses haven’t earned a shekel in the last few months.
The government’s poor approach
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, just 5,800 tourists came to Israel last month, compared with 365,000 in June 2019. That figure alone is enough to illustrate how desperate the industry is, whether it’s tour guides like Abeksis, the operators of Bedouin or Circassian holidays or the owners of fleets of jeeps or all-terrain vehicles.
“At best, tourism to Israel will only revive in a year, and then it will take another two or three years before it reaches the levels it enjoyed in 2019,” Abeksis said. “Most of the people working in the sector can’t wait three years for a recovery. Many will leave, most of them heads of families, middle-aged people who won’t be able to find another job. If you count hotel workers, it’s 250,000 workers.”
The government’s solution is to pay longer-term unemployment benefits that give the newly unemployed enough money to sustain themselves, more or less. There was also another 6 billion shekels ($1.74 billion) in the draft state budget for employment incentives and professional retraining, but that stash has already been cut by a third.
The government’s entire coronavirus economic program is budgeted at 90 billion shekels, with the part for getting people back to work not even enough to help a few hundred thousand unemployed.
“The government hasn’t thought for a minute about the future or the human capital that will be wasted over the next year if not longer. What are our chances of returning to the job market when the crisis is over?” Abeksis said.
“Take tour guides. It’s mostly an educated group; most speak a foreign language and have experience working with groups from all over the world. Is it possible the government can take some of them and find them work in government offices?”
A revolution in domestic tourism?
It’s doubtful that the government would be willing to increase the size of the civil service right now, especially with rewarding jobs. But it could address the tourism sector’s problem by taking advantage of the fact that millions of Israelis can no longer fly overseas, and if they’re going to vacation they’re going to vacation at home.
The numbers are encouraging. In June 2019, 837,000 Israelis flew abroad (down to 16,100 last month during the coronavirus crisis). Plus the market of Israeli tourists is much bigger than the market of foreign tourists visiting Israel. So how does Israel exploit these numbers?
Abeksis suggests, first, to take advantage of the fact that many Israelis have been stuck at home for four months by offering organized tours funded by the government.
Second, establish a tourism fund, modeled on the Taglit and Masa programs launched during the second intifada for Diaspora Jews. Most of the money would revert back to the state by encouraging consumer spending, especially in the Negev in the south and Galilee in the north.
Regarding foreign tourism, Abeksis proposes that Israel develop new tourism products. For years, the country has been promoting itself as the Holy Land without considering alternative approaches. Another option is to upgrade tourism infrastructure, which has suffered years of underdevelopment and under-maintenance.
Another idea is to bring in organized groups in “capsules” that avoid face-to-face contact with locals. Christian pilgrims already do this, spending their days traveling from one holy site to another and spending their nights at hotels.
For tourism professionals over 45, Abeksis proposes retraining; for instance, as teachers for the upcoming school year. The schools are going to need more staff, he noted.
“I’m not waving the flag of massive government involvement in the labor market because it will create all kinds of distortions, but current conditions require the finding of even temporary employment. Otherwise, we’ll find ourselves facing chronic unemployment, poverty, crime and other social maladies,” he said.
Abeksis is touching on a critical issue regarding high unemployment – it’s not just an economic problem. It means the loss of status, isolation and the absence of professional challenges or the feeling of contributing to society. Jobless benefits don’t provide any of that. National undertakings that create jobs or training opportunities offer some hope.
“The Israeli tourism industry has never realized its full potential both because of the security situation and the high cost of living here. The situation now should be forcing the Tourism Ministry and the industry to address a new and complicated situation,” Abeksis said.
“The immediate solutions must be based on the domestic market. But beyond that, the absence of foreign tourism is giving us an opportunity to draw up a plan for the day after the coronavirus that makes Israeli tourism competitive and attractive.”