'We're Vaccinated': As COVID Recedes, Tel Aviv Makes Push to Bring Back Tourists

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A beach in Tel Aviv, this week.
A beach in Tel Aviv, this week.Credit: Hadas Parush

Ahead of the slated arrival of the first post-pandemic tourists later this month, Tel Aviv's municipality is pushing hard to entice travelers to visit, touting the city’s high vaccination rate and the various safety precautions in place to prevent another outbreak.

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“Today, more than 80 percent of eligible recipients in Tel Aviv-Yafo are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, offering safe experiences and interactions across the city,” the municipality boasted in a statement announcing a new “international video campaign” on Thursday. “Entry into hotels, restaurants, nightlife institutions and other crowded attractions is dependent on proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test.”

A promotional video uploaded to the internet showed various locals preparing for the return of tourists, including a hotel housekeeper pushing a wheelbarrow of complimentary mints, a bartender mixing drinks in an empty bar, a guard practicing shushing guests in a deserted museum and a man sitting on a bench asking invasive questions of a nearby dog.

In 2019, travel and tourism contributed 5.9 percent of Israel's gross domestic product, according to the World Travel and Tourism Council, but its hospitality and tourism sector was hit hard by the pandemic, losing $5.3 billion in 2020 as the number of incoming visitors dropped to 832,000 from a record 4.55 million the previous year. This forced hotels and other businesses dependent on travelers to hunker down and seek new revenue streams, especially after Jerusalem barred the entry of foreigners in December.

By early April, two months after hotels were allowed to reopen, only 50 out of the Israel Hotels Association’s 420 member hotels had reopened, with around 40 percent of hotels standing empty. As of 2019, some 47 percent of hotels in Israel catered to foreign tourists.

According to the Israel Hotel Association data from before the Passover holiday, only 51 out of the 113 member hotels in Tel Aviv were open.

In a press release on Thursday, the Tel Aviv municipality stated that despite the lull, “the city has taken advantage of the past year to accelerate investment in and upgrades to its tourism infrastructure and experience. Despite limits on travel, new hotels have opened across the city – closing the gap between supply and tourist demand.”

Dozens of Israeli hotels underwent government-subsidized upgrades and expansion in 2020, many of them following through on plans put in place before the outbreak of the pandemic.

The municipality, which said that tourism contributed $1.34 billion to its economy in 2019, stated that beyond visitors from “traditional tourism markets,” it was also anticipating a growth in tourism from the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco, all of which signed normalization agreements with Israel during the past year.

Last month, the government announced that it would begin allowing vaccinated tourists into the country as part of organized groups starting on May 23. All tourists would be required to undergo coronavirus tests and an antibody test within 72 hours of boarding their flights to Israel and to be tested again upon landing.

Last Tuesday, Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen announced the launch of a new campaign to maximize the number of incoming tourists in 2021 through a combination of financial incentives to airlines flying to Eilat’s Ramon Airport, advertising campaigns in the Gulf and a series of “large international events” — such as a LGBTQ pride parade, cycling race and music festivals.

Many of these events are likely to be held in Tel Aviv, and the city has not been shy in courting visitors.

“Dear tourists, we have missed you,” Mayor Ron Huldai declared in the statement announcing the city’s new campaign on Thursday. “Incoming tourism is an integral part of the identity of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, and I am excited to host you again soon.”

Reuters contributed to this report.

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