Israel Is Open to Tourists, but It Will Be a While Before Many Come

Even though the skies are open, onerous rules and COVID fears are deterring all but the most determined visitors

David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg
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Arrivals at Ben-Gurion international airport, last week.
Arrivals at Ben-Gurion international airport, last week.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
David Rosenberg
David Rosenberg

After 20 months, the first tourists began landing in Israel this month, but Israelis are unlikely to bump into one, save for the major travel and pilgrimage destinations. And, with the current outlook, it’s quite possible they won’t be encountering many for some time to come.

Israel opened the gates to tourists November 1, but the rules for entering the country are onerous, confusing and effectively bar travel with children. One government source told TheMarker this week that a mere 23,000 tourists came to Israel in the first 10 days of the month, compared with 451,000 for the entire month of November in 2019, before the coronavirus struck.

Travelers report that planes landing at Ben-Gurion International Airport aren’t full, which may cause airlines to begin canceling flights in the winter, undercutting prospects for a medium-term recovery.

Whether the tourism numbers for Israel and the world will significantly improve over the next year is anyone’s guess, say industry sources. The travel industry’s hopes for 2021, as vaccinations began, were dashed by the delta variant and widespread vaccine hesitancy. The bets on a 2022 recovery are modest at best.

The International Air Transport Association forecasts a rebound in global air travel next year, with a 50 percent increase in passenger departures over 2020 levels to 3.43 billion. But travel is not expected to come close to approaching its pre-COVID number. If the IATA forecasts are correct, departures will still be almost 25 percent down on their 2019 levels.

Even in its most optimistic scenario, the global consulting firm Bain & Co.’s forecast for global air travel demand does see a return to 2019 levels until the spring of 2023. Demand for regional flights, as against international flights, will rebound faster, it predicted.

An American tour group outside the Al-Aqsa Mosque on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, this month.Credit: Emil Salman

“We don’t believe there will be a full recovery by the end of 2022 – it will take much longer. There will be no market with a 100 percent recovery, though some will do better than others,” says Yury Spektorov, a partner in Bain’s Moscow office.

Gates are still closed

Even though numbers will remain lower than they were pre-pandemic, world travel is gradually reviving. Israel remains an attractive destination, not only for its holy sites but because its low rate of COVID infection and high rate of vaccination make it a relatively safe destination.

But industry sources say Israel faces some serious obstacles, one being that vacationing travelers remain cautious and are staying closer to home. Travel restrictions are strict and in a constant state of flux, and Israel is no exception. Many people also remain cautious about international air travel, and Israel’s visitors almost all arrive by air.

Eran Ketter, a tourism-industry researcher at the Kinneret Academic College and a consultant to, among others, the European Tourism Commission, told Haaretz that “the vast majority of Europeans – close to 90% – are traveling inside Europe. Two-thirds are traveling close to home or, at most, crossing over the nearest border.”

He added, “As a traveler, I might have the feeling that traveling in general, and in particular to Israel, is a little too complicated,.”

Tourists at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, earlier this month,Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg

Oni Amiel, CEO of the incoming-tourism company Amiel Tours, called the government’s decision to allow tourists back a “positive step.” But, he said, it’s not nearly enough to bring them in in large numbers.

“If you look at the big macro picture, we have a problem: We’ve opened the gates, but they’re not really open if we compare ourselves to other countries, not only our neighbors but also Europe,” he told Haaretz. “Our COVID requirements are about four times stricter. If the prime minister says we have to live with COVID and work with it, this isn’t happening with incoming tourism.”

In Israel, Amiel said, his company is still arranging organized tours, but he stressed that “the numbers are marginal – there are thousands of tourists, but it’s not something we can work with.”

Even a tepid rebound hinges on factors economists can’t predict, most importantly whether the world succeeds in containing the coronavirus and can continue lowering restrictions on international travel. Although the U.S. last week eased rules for foreign visitors, Europe is experiencing another COVID surge and imposing new restrictions.

Ketter says Europeans – who in the pre-COVID era accounted for 58 percent of all tourist arrivals to Israel – are anxious to begin travelling again. A survey he helped conduct for the ETC found that more than two-thirds of Europeans polled in September said they were planning to travel in the coming six months.

The ETC survey found Europeans have two main concerns when choosing where to travel. The first is how widespread COVID at the destination and what protocols are practiced on their way there and after they arrive The second is how much red tape they can expect to encounter and how easy it is to cancel reservations.

In regard to the first set of concerns, Israel’s high vaccination rate and plummeting numbers of new COVID cases is a plus for luring tourists, says Ketter. But its complicated rules and the risk that they may change at any moment are a drawback.

“Travelers have to figure out the right timing because you have to do the COVID check, upload the results, fill out all the forms and take two COVID tests in Israel, one on arrival and another on departure. There’s a lot of uncertainty there, too,” he explains.

That uncertainty could turn into a major deterrent. While individual tourists in these uncertain times may be inclined to book flights and hotel rooms at the last minute, organized group tours have to be planned months in advance.

Amiel said the government's zig-zagging policy on incoming tourism has given him no shortage of headaches this year. As a fourth COVID wave emerged, plans to reopen Israel to tourism July 1 were postponed to August 1 and then postponed indefinitely. The government only announced the November 1 date nine days in advance as the wave receded.

“The tourism world cannot work like this – airlines, tour organizers need something solid,” said Amiel, who also sits on the board of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association trade association. He warned: “Israel is losing sympathy and losing the interest of tourists to come.”

Still has the pull factors

Even so, Israel has unique attractions that can offset the downside of the red tape. Traveler looking for beaches or nightlife have their pick of destinations; for a Christian pilgrim or an observant Jew, only Israel has the holy sites they want to visit. The obstacle may be the relatively high rates of vaccine refusal among Evangelical Christians, which effectively bars them from entering Israel.

Another major source of Israel-bound tourism is friends-and-family visits, because such a big share of Israel’s population are first-generation immigrants. Spektorov says he expects the strongest recovery on friends-and-family-heavy routes such as New York- and Moscow-Tel Aviv.

This week, Israel cleared the way for Russian tourism by saying it would let people inoculated with Russia's Sputnik V vaccine enter starting December 1. “We’ll have a huge demand from Russia. Russians can’t go to a lot of countries right now,” Spektorov predicts, saying the numbers would be buttressed by Christian and medical tourism.

It’s for that reason, Ketter doubts that visitors will be strongly deterred by the fact that the shekel is now trading at its strongest against the dollar and euro in 25 years.

“The strong shekel is an additional cost, but a lot of people we’re willing to come here despite the increased cost. If you’ve been dreaming all your life of visiting Jerusalem, you’re going to be willing to spend a few extra dollars,” Ketter says. “If you were looking for an affordable vacation, Israel wasn’t on your list in the first place.”

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