Israel welcomed its first group of international tourists on Thursday (May 27) after recently reopening its borders to foreign vaccinated or COVID-recovered visitors.
Part of a pilot program allowing small groups only (for now), the first booking consisted of 11 American theological students from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri, escorted by their professor.
The group departed Newark Airport on United Flight 090 Wednesday evening and landed in Tel Aviv at 4:20 p.m. local time.
Upon arrival, Israel’s Minister of Tourism, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, greeted the group in celebration, kicking off the official return of international tourism to the country.
The group’s arrival marks the official start of Israel’s pilot program and over the next few days and weeks, 19 additional groups from around the world will arrive in the country.
The plan is to increase the number of groups allowed into the country and soon reopen to individual international tourists over the summer.
“This is just the beginning of the long-awaited return of tourism to Israel – we plan to continue rolling out next steps and advancements in our phased approach over the coming weeks,” said Eyal Carlin, Israel’s Commissioner of Tourism in North America. “Israelis are ecstatic and are ready, with open arms, to welcome international visitors back to the country.”
To halt the spread of COVID-19, all visitors arriving in Israel must be fully vaccinated, have taken a PCR test that proved a negative result, and will be tested for antibodies upon arrival.
Restrictions lifting June 1
Israel, on the global stage, has led the charge in rolling out COVID-19 vaccinations.
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.
Last Sunday (May 23), 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.
Israel was also a pioneer in launching a “green pass,” a type of vaccine passport, built into an app, that has allowed citizens to move more freely amid the pandemic (by allowing entrance into restaurants and large venues, for example).
Israel will “prove itself again”
PAX recently caught up with Gal Hana, Israel Consul of Tourism to Canada, to learn more about Israel’s restart.
“We’ve had a rough year worldwide, and thankfully, with vaccinations increasing, we’re seeing positive signs,” Mr. Hana told PAX. “I believe that, by summer, we will go back to a certain level of normality.”
Israel’s pilot program kicked in just two days after the Israel-Hamas ceasefire was announced, 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.
Despite security concerns, inquiries about Israel’s tourism reopening have continued to pour in from around the globe.
Registration for the group travel program only began last week, and the fact that spaces filled up so quickly (within just nine minutes, says Israel’s Ministry of Tourism) speaks to the pent-up demand that is fuelling the marketplace right now.
The political situation in Israel is still 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.
With the announcement of a ceasefire, the hope is that things go back to normal so tourists can, once again, 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.
“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 said.
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