The Tourism Ministry on Sunday relaunched its pilot program that will allow foreign tourist groups to visit the country.
The program will allow vaccinated visitors from specific countries to enter Israel, provided they test negative for COVID-19 before their flight and, serologically, upon arrival.
Resuming the program, halted in August with the country caught in its fourth wave of coronavirus infections, could be a beacon of hope for the tourism industry. It will, however, be too late to save one of the sector’s high seasons, the month of the Jewish High Holy Days, which sees Jews from around the world visit the country.
Israel has been largely closed to foreigners since the beginning of 2020, a heavy blow to tourism-reliant businesses. At present, setting aside the recently relaunched pilot, foreign tourists can only enter the country if they’re vaccinated or recovered and have first-degree relatives in Israel.
Foreign nationals eligible to enter according to those rules must apply for a permit before traveling and are required to quarantine for 14 days after arrival unless they come from a small group of select countries. PCR or serological tests, however, will allow entrants to shorten their period of isolation.
“Occupancy was very high during Rosh Hashanah. The hotel was full … and that’s as expected. [Even] during years that have incoming tourism, Rosh Hashanah is a holiday of domestic tourists, Israeli guests,” Racheli Yakov, events and conferences manager at the Orient Hotel Jerusalem, said.
The weeklong Sukkot holiday, which began on Monday evening, is a different story.
“Sukkot, which is a holiday of incoming tourism – meaning, of American Jewry – that’s where we suffer a loss,” Yakov continued. “During [this] Sukkot the hotel isn’t full, it’s very calm. If in 2019 we had five sukkahs [small, temporary booths in which observant Jews eat during the holiday], this year we have one.”
This is not only because of low occupancy, she explains, but also because the Israeli tourists who are present are less interested in the holiday’s religious dictates than are the usual visitors.
Before the pandemic, Israel’s tourism industry was booming, with significant year-over-year jumps in the number of incoming visitors. 2019 was a record year; according to the World Bank, 4.9 million foreign tourists entered Israel right before its gates clamped shut.
To draw guests during the usually busy season, Yakov said the hotel has special offerings. It has also been able to supply its guests with coupons for local attractions, provided by the Jerusalem Development Authority in an attempt to assist the city’s tourism industry.
“We give out coupons to Israeli guests and that has helped a lot in bringing guests here,” she said.
Ido Emanuel owns and manages several short-term rental units in Jerusalem and has also felt the impact of Israel’s closed gates policy. Before the pandemic, “during Sukkot, I had only visitors from abroad. Mainly Americans, some from France, but generally speaking, only foreigners,” Emanuel said. This year, he says, occupancy stands at 70%.
“No overseas visitors have come this year and the guests are Israelis that almost always come for one night only,” he said. Contrary to the Orient Hotel, Emanuel noted that his Rosh Hashanah guests were almost solely foreign nationals, who came as part of the High Holiday season.
This is the second year in a row in which Israel’s hotels and Airbnb apartment managers have to weather trying conditions. In 2020, a nationwide lockdown was declared before the Jewish holidays, putting a stop to domestic tourism as well. Despite Israel’s spectacularly successful vaccination drive, the country has found itself once again gripped in a COVID wave.
It remains to be seen whether the country’s third dose rollout will be enough to allow the local tourism industry to celebrate Passover, another high point, as it used to, come April 2022.
The article was written by Daniel Sonnenfeld and reprinted with permission from The Media Line