Sunday felt like a holiday in Jerusalem’s city center.
With Israel implementing the third stage of its reopening plan, restaurants and cafes opened their doors to patrons and the streets bustled with shoppers enjoying the sunny weather and relative return to normalcy.
But the country’s borders continue to be closed to international visitors, and no date has been set for their opening.
With this year-long situation persevering, businesses that were anxiously awaiting the yearly rush of Passover and Easter tourists are either changing their business model, or facing difficulties.
"I’ve been open for almost two weeks, right? Apart from one person, not a soul has entered my store,” says Berale, who works at the Estee Brook jewelry store in Jerusalem’s city center.
He says that the store has two main busy seasons – during the Jewish holidays of Passover and Sukkot.
A lot of people usually are visiting from abroad then, he says, and “you can say that 70 percent to 80 percent of our business occurs either in the month around Passover or the month around Sukkot.”
Israel’s closed skies ahead of Passover have dealt a terrible blow to the store.
The Estee Brook store is located a short walk from Jerusalem’s most luxurious hotels, but Berale believes reopening the hotels won’t do the store much good.
If Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu “reopens the hotels and doesn’t reopen the airport, what good will that do?” he says.
Israelis aren’t the typical clientele for those hotels, and even if Jerusalem fills with domestic tourists, he says it will do the store “very little good.”
Loyal customers that have continued to come back are what has kept the store afloat, but Berale says the store owner is now looking to sell, since “there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.”
Estee Brook has fallen between the cracks, as a business that relies almost entirely on tourists but falls outside the purview of the Ministry of Tourism, which is working to mitigate the results of the closed skies.
Hotels and tour companies would normally be expecting to fill with tourists coming from abroad for Passover and Easter during this season, and while this may be off the table, the Tourism Ministry is hoping that their absence will be somewhat counterbalanced by domestic tourism.
Israelis cannot currently travel abroad for vacations and many will be vacationing inside the country.
Bed-and-breakfast accommodations in Israel’s countryside are already full, and the Tourism Ministry is funding free tours to encourage Israelis to visit cities, where overnight accommodations have been slower to fill up.
The hope is that this will kill two birds with one stone – encouraging visitors to Jerusalem, Tel Aviv and Haifa, while providing employment for tour guides and bus drivers.
Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen said in a statement that, “with Passover around the corner, domestic tourism is open and thriving, and I am certain this will give the entire industry a big push as we continue to work toward the resumption of inbound tourism.”
However, for Joe Yudin, who owns and manages Touring Israel, a luxury touring company, the ministry’s efforts are too little too late.
“I’ve heard of these things. It’s all talk,” he says. “Until they open the airport for people who have been vaccinated, or for people that have taken a COVID test, it’s all talk. It’s not a solution, it’s not even a Band-Aid for the problem.”
March through June is his company’s biggest season, but now “it’s not there,” Yudin says.
Not only that, “we’ve got no idea when it’s going to start again. People want to come to Israel and they feel safe about coming to Israel. The only problem is when they email me, ‘when can we come to Israel?’ I don’t have an answer for them, I can only speculate.”
Yudin says that his company tried to direct its efforts at the local market, but that didn’t work out.
Not only are Israeli customers very different from international travelers, the various restrictions on activities in the country, that were “on and off and on and off” throughout the year, made it difficult to reorganize and try to compensate for the absence of global visitors, he says.
Also, all of Israel’s touring industry was “trying to aim at that small market so...”
The past year has pushed many tour guides out of the business, Yudin says. “When they do want to reopen the skies and there’s this mad rush, there’s going to be a huge problem
Others are more optimistic, including Uri Sharon, marketing director at Abraham Hostels and Tours and Ynetnews tourism contributor.
“We are optimistic, we’re investing right now in a [new] location – our fourth hostel in Eilat – it will be our biggest hostel with more than 100 rooms, and we are planning the opening for the 1st of May,” he says.
Sharon expects international visitors will be able to enter in the coming months but, in the meantime, the company has adjusted to cater to the local taste and he says, “we’re definitely seeing a good response.”
Although domestic tourism “will only partially compensate for 4.5 million tourists that will hopefully return to Israel,” Sharon says that he is expecting high occupancy rates during the coming Passover season – both at his company’s hostels, and on its tour buses.
While some tour companies and hotels are trying to shift to Israel’s domestic market, other businesses have found different ways to cope with the situation. Roni co-owns Miss D. Gallery, a large pop art and fine-art gallery in Tel Aviv, whose clientele is mostly international.
“We are waiting for” our clients “to return and we love it when they can come and visit us as well,” Roni says. In the meantime, the gallery continues to keep in touch with its clients online. Roni says he is optimistic about the situation. People in Israel are adaptive and “we have survived Pharaoh, we’ll survive this as well,” he says, using a common Israeli saying, often uttered in the face of hardship.
Eli Zur runs a Judaica and jewelry store in central Jerusalem, selling unique Jewish-Yemenite jewelry. He remains optimistic for a different reason: He is still hoping that the skies will reopen for the coming holidays.
“It was a terrible blow to us, the stores that sell a lot to tourists,” he says of the past year.
The Jewish holidays are an important season for his store, when returning customers come to visit family and visit him as well.
“I really hope that they will open the skies to tourists as well,” he says. “I hope and I believe. What do I have left? That’s what I have left.”
Reprinted with permission from The Media Line