The World's Most Vaccinated Country: How Israel Is Preparing to Lure Back Tourists

Holy sites, beaches, locals are vaccinated against COVID-19: The local industry is strategizing how to get visitors back, but the future is murky

Tourists at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, last year.
Tourists at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, last year.Credit: Emil Salman

Israel is back in lockdown mode and few planes are landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport. At best, the future of tourism looks gloomy.

But that doesn’t mean that the global industry and the government officials who support it aren’t preparing for the day after coronavirus and readying to make the case why the first post-COVID-lockdown travellers should opt for Israel as their choice destination.

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Israel is competing, but it faces enormous obstacles, including long flights to get here that many travellers fear increases their risk of getting infected. Critics say it is not doing enough to stay in the game. Yet in the post-pandemic world, Israel may have one very important tourist lure – its high rate of vaccination.

“We have a chance for travellers to choose Tel Aviv over Berlin, if we’re the first to open our skies,” said Yaron Burgin, co-owner and CEO of Abraham Hostels & Tours. “This has to be higher in the government’s list of priorities, but it stopped talking about incoming tourism at the start of the [COVID] crisis.”

No one is prepared to say when global travel will return to the record levels it enjoyed in 2019, but industry experts say when it does come back the lingering impact of the pandemic will continue to impact air travel and tourism.

A survey of travel professionals conducted by the UN World Tourism Organization found that 43% think it will take two more years for the sector to reach 2019 levels. Another 41% think the recovery won’t be complete until 2024 or later. More than half say 2021 won’t be any better than 2020 and maybe even worse. No one thinks there will be real recovery.

When there is, it will first focus on nature and outdoor activities, and domestic tourism over international travel.

Israel’s Tourism Ministry doesn’t share this bearishness. “The world was brought to a halt and now it’s starting anew,” said Amir Halevi, its director general. “There are forecasts, but we don’t really know what will happen and how the tourism industry will be affected this year while the world remains closed and can’t move forward.”

A study conducted for the European Union – the single biggest source of tourism to Israel – by the consulting firm Mindhaus is more encouraging than the UN survey. Half of the 6,000 respondents in 10 leading EU countries said they planned on going on vacation either in their home countries or abroad. Only 28% expressly said they wouldn’t travel.

Nevertheless, it’s unlikely that the increasing willingness to travel, compared to previous coronavirus waves, will do much to help Israeli tourism. The survey showed Europeans preferred travel at home or inside the EU: Only 13% said they were ready to fly to a non-European destination.

That may not be as bad as it sounds, sad Dr. Eran Keter, a travel consultant and member of Mindhaus’ management team. “Ordinarily more than 80% of European tourists don’t leave the continent,” he said. Still, there’s going to be a drop in the number of tourists coming to Israel because now people prefer to travel to nearby destinations, which they believe are safer and cheaper.

If so, that means the Israeli tourism industry will have to rely on locals again this year. “Research shows that people regard flights of more than four hours as putting them at higher risk of getting COVID than one-hour flights do, even though it makes no difference. Europeans see Israel’s distance as increasing the risk,” said Keter.

But Israel has some assets that may yet convince travellers to come as the pandemic fades. Warm weather enables even urban tourists to spend much of their time outdoors and religious tourism is always a draw.

“Israel can rely on religious tourism. If the switch is turned on today, within a month there will be groups of religious tourists here,” said Danny Amir, chairman of the Incoming Tour Operators Association in Israel.

A new asset that may be just as important is Israel’s high rate of vaccination. The positive media coverage the vaccine drive has won globally is serving as an informal marketing tool for travel to Israel, tourism officials hope.

Young Europeans aged 18 to 24 may emerge as a target market, even though the survey showed they were less likely to travel than other age groups.

“Generation Z was hit hard financially by the pandemic, so we asked them if their unwillingness to travel was connected with money, and we were surprised to find that it wasn’t,” said Keter. “We found that they were less concerned about health issues. What’s important to them is fun and adventure. If they can’t get it, they don’t see any reason to travel. If Greece doesn’t have open bars and beach parties, they won’t go there. It’s not that they’re afraid to travel, it’s just that they don’t think travel will be fun.”

Under the circumstances, Tel Aviv has assets to leverage, especially vis a vis young travellers, he said. “We hope that the fact that Israel is leading the world in inoculations will enable us to soon return to normal nightlife and lure tourists from Europe.”

But while Israel imposed bans or took other measures to discourage air travel as early as last spring’s first COVID lockdown, other countries adopted different policies. Egypt, for instance, allows foreign tourists to visit certain parts of the country. Russia announced it would allow its citizens to take flights to several destinations, among them Egypt.

“Without a doubt the PR Israel has enjoyed from the vaccination drive has been excellent, but we’re close to missing out on a spectacular opportunity because no major undertaking has been made in incoming tourism,” said Burgin.

“Religious tourists [in groups] want to come back, but the critical mass comes from individual travellers creating the critical mass, and we have to do the groundwork, including marketing, to enable them to return when it’s possible,” he said.

The key, he added, was showing them what kind of things there will be to do in Israel come May and June.

“If Israel has said to the world that when we’ve got six million people inoculated we’ll resume cultural events, [and reopen] restaurants and bars, we would have an effective marketing campaign. We have to create a vision,” advised Burgin. “If it turns out there are 17 new COVID strains, no one will complain that the situation changed.”

But Halevi, of the Tourism Ministry, thinks it’s too early to be marketing Israel. Before the start of last fall’s second lockdown, the ministry had approved rules for organized tour groups to visit Israel, but with the rise of new COVID cases the initiative was shelved. “Everything hangs on the world returning to normalcy, but for now global air traffic is very slow,” he said. “Only when the world’s airlines and leading airports establish standards for boarding planes, will things start to move again.”

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