Following a decline in local COVID-19 infections, Israel reopened its borders to foreign tourists on Sunday (May 23) under a pilot project that is allowing small groups of vaccinated and COVID-recovered visitors.
The program, launched by Israel’s Ministry of Tourism (IMOT) and Ministry of Health, has a 20-group limit and each group must have between five and 30 attendees in it.
To get the ball rolling, the Ministry invited tour operators from around the world to submit requests – on a first come, first served basis – to bring one vaccinated group each during the pilot period.
To say there was a high level of interest would be an understatement.
The allotted quota was filled with groups – from the U.S., England and Germany, mostly – within just nine minutes of opening registration, the IMOT says, capping the program’s first stage, which runs until June 15 (tours after that date will require a special permit).
For Gal Hana, Israel Consul of Tourism to Canada, seeing Israel move forward with a tourism recovery plan, after 14 months of inactivity due to the pandemic, is a promising sign of good things to come.
“First and foremost, it’s optimism,” Hana told PAX in a recent telephone interview. “We’ve had a rough year worldwide, and thankfully, with vaccinations increasing, we’re seeing positive signs.”
A ceasefire declared
But if 2020 and 2021 has taught the travel industry anything, it’s that nothing ever goes according to plan.
While Israel’s pilot program kicked in Sunday, on schedule, it arrived just two days after the Israel-Hamas ceasefire was declared, a moment that brought calm to 11 days of violence that left behind trails of destruction, including hundreds of destroyed homes and more than 250 lives lost – most of them in Gaza, the BBC reports.
A war crisis on top of a health crisis doesn’t bode well for tourism – at least in the interim.
Israel has a solid framework for tourism in place, but tensions in Jerusalem are still high due to recent events, reports say.
But that hasn't stopped tour groups from arriving – Israel's first international tourist group to enter in more than a year departed Newark Airport and landed in Tel Aviv on May 27, with Minister of Tourism, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, greeting the group (11 American theological students) in celebration.
Yet despite security concerns, inquiries about Israel’s tourism reopening have continued to pour in from around the globe.
Registration for the country’s group travel program only began last week, and the fact that spaces filled up so quickly, during a war, speaks to the pent-up demand that is fuelling the marketplace right now.
The political situation in Israel is serious, but Hana is confident that the vibrant destination, which welcomed a record-breaking 4.5 million tourists in 2019, will rebound in due time.
“Despite the recent security escalation in Israel, I am convinced that Israel’s past experience, which has showed resilience and solid demand, will prove itself again,” Hana told PAX.
“Israel is going back to normal”
With the announcement of a ceasefire, the hope is that things will go back to normal so tourists will, once again, be able to enjoy Tel Aviv’s beaches, walking in the Old City of Jerusalem, visiting the magnificent Basilica of Annunciation in Nazareth and enjoying the many other ancient sites across the Holy Land.
Normal, in a pandemic sense, is a word that Israel has been using for several months now.
On the global stage, the country has led the charge in rolling out vaccinations.
A process that started last December, Israel administrated more than 10 million doses of Pfizer–BioNTech's mRNA COVID-19 vaccine within just four months.
As of May 24, 56.5 per cent of Israel’s population of 9.05 million people has been fully vaccinated with two doses, with 60.1 per cent receiving at least one dose.
“I believe that, by summer, we will go back to a certain level of normality,” Hana said, noting how local restrictions, such as wearing masks in public spaces, have also eased up.
In fact, just last Sunday, Israel’s Health Ministry declared that it will be lifting most coronavirus restrictions on June 1, eliminating regulations that require businesses to operate either under “Green Pass” or “Purple Standard” systems.
That announcement came as Israel, on that same day, logged just 500 active cases of COVID-19, which is a significant drop compared to the 88,000 cases it posted at the peak of the pandemic.
“Israel is going back to normal,” said Israel’s Minister of Health Yuli Edelstein, as reported by the Jerusalem Post. “…thanks to the amazing mobilization of Israeli citizens, we have carried out the best vaccination campaign in the world.”
Embracing vaccine passports
The term “green pass” is a type of vaccine passport and, during the pandemic, it’s a concept that Israel pioneered and embraced.
In February, the country released an app that allowed people to show proof of vaccination or if they have presumed immunity after contracting COVID-19.
The pass, in turn, has allowed citizens to move more freely amid the pandemic (by allowing entrance into restaurants and large venues, for example).
While other jurisdictions (such as the EU) plan to launch similar concepts for reopening tourism, others countries – Canada included – are still debating just how vaccine certification will factor into reopening plans.
“Israel, because of the way we dealt with the pandemic, is perceived as a COVID-safe destination,” Hana said.
Groups only. For now.
The country’s new pilot project reflects a slow and gradual approach to rebooting tourism and managing health risks.
Groups participating in the program, which was announced in April, must still undergo two PCR tests – one up to 72 hours before flying to Israel and one on arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv.
“We’re not rushing into opening borders because we want to guarantee the safety of travellers,” Hana said. “The last thing we want is to open borders and then shut down.”
Only groups, at first, will be allowed to enter the country and they will be accompanied by vaccinated guides and drivers.
This was a strategic move as group travel represents 30 per cent of Israel’s bookings, Hana explained.
“Many groups postponed due to the pandemic, so we know the demand is solid,” he said.
From a COVID-monitoring standpoint, it’s also easier to manage groups – as opposed to independent travellers – when they arrive at the airport and during their stay, he added.
“If everything goes smoothly,” Hana said, Israel will gradually open to individual travellers and, by fall, be in a position to resume tourism as it once did.
“The demand for travel has never been as high as it is right now,” Hana added.
Big plans for Canada
The investments Israel has made in upgrading its hotels and attractions during the pandemic has resulted in “a whole different country,” Hana said.
Boasting a diverse set of options – from sea and sun to lively culinary experiences to world-famous sacred sites – in one small territory is a big part of Israel’s appeal.
“You can have it all, in one long-haul,” as Hana put it, suggesting that this is something post-pandemic travellers will be looking for.
Of the groups that have, so far, signed up for Israel’s pilot program, none are from Canada, Hana said, which is expected given Canada’s strict travel and quarantine rules.
However: “I am confident Canada will be on Israel’s green list once borders open,” Hana said.
Air Canada currently operates two non-stop flights per week from Toronto to Tel Aviv and has plans to launch the same offer from Montreal on July 4.
Israel is also betting on Canada’s high potential – in addition to the IMOT expanding its Canadian team by adding a soon-to-be-announced marketing director, it will also be launching a new portal for travel advisors that will feature webinars, special offers, air updates and product information.
Hana hopes to launch the new platform next month.
“We are also more than happy to collaborate [with agents] on marketing or seminars to make sure the word is out and so people understand the attractiveness of Israel,” Hana said.
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