Israelis Traveling Abroad in Record Numbers for COVID Era, Despite Bennett’s Warning

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Passengers at Ben-Gurion International Airport's arrivals hall, late last month.
Passengers at Ben-Gurion International Airport's arrivals hall, late last month.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

June saw 301,000 people passengers flying out of Ben-Gurion International Airport, a record since the coronavirus pandemic began, and twice the level of May – which also showed a drop in trips because of the fighting in the Gaza Strip, according to data from the Israel Airports Authority.

Last Thursday, the first day of the summer vacation from school, was also a record day for outgoing passengers at the airport since the beginning of the pandemic. Some 21,000 people took off that day for various destinations on almost 100 flights. This is a small number compared to pre-coronavirus days, but compared to the last few months, June was a turning point with a major jump in demand for flights.

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In spite of the encouraging figures from the travel industry's perspective, operations at Ben-Gurion are still very far from what used to be normal. In June 2019, 1.1 million outgoing passengers flew out from the airport – over three times the number from last month. It is also possible that outgoing tourism from Israel would have been much stronger if it wasn’t for what Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said two weeks ago, when he recommended that the Israeli public avoid nonessential flights out of the country. “If you don’t need to fly, don’t fly, and if you still haven’t booked a flight – don’t book,” Bennett told the public.

The day after Bennett’s statement, travel agents reported a slowdown in new reservations – as well as cancellations of existing bookings – but it seems that since then the effect of his statements has faded. “We felt as if we were going back a year and a half,” said Amit Yudaikin, head of the Travelist website. “It wasn’t fair and it wasn’t correct, because people wanted to fly and there was a nice rise in demand, bookings and flight searches, and then the relatively sharp decline in reservations began. But a week later we were already seeing a moderate rise in flight searches and bookings, and over the last weekend there was a steep rise of about 30 percent in searches for flights, mostly to nearby destinations such as Cyprus and Greece, alongside a rise in bookings,” she said.

“In practice, we returned to the same demand we had before [Bennett’s] statement. It’s possible to say it had an initial boom, but a moment later faded away.”

Pegasus, a company that specializes mostly in organized trips, saw a drastic drop in demand because of Bennett’s statement – but things look different today. “Bennett’s statement was really intimidating. People who heard their prime minister say not to fly, seem to have thought that he knows something they didn’t know. They were afraid of new rules on isolation, and also the cancellation of flights without the possibility of refunds,” said the CEO of Pegasus, Itamar Nir. “Today, when we see a change in the public’s attitude, we understand that reality is stronger than any declaration. We hope that next week will be quiet as far as the headlines that come out of Ben-Gurion Airport are concerned, so the positive trend will continue,” said Nir.

People are coming back and buying airline tickets, because for now they see that nothing has changed,” said Tali Noy, vice president for sales and marketing at Issta. The company reported a rise of 30 percent in demand compared to Thursday. Israir also reported that after a slowdown of a day or two in orders after Bennett made his remarks, bookings are rising again.

“We are far from the pace of July and August 2019, but we definitely see the increase in orders compared to April, May and the beginning of June,” said Gil Stav, vice president for marketing at Israir. “Nonetheless, outgoing tourism will not even reach 50 percent compared to the figures for 2019.”

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