Tourism professionals demand government intervention on Thursday in a park opposite the Knesset in Jerusalem. (David Rawlings/The Media Line)

Hit by Pandemic Closures, Israeli Tourism Professionals Demand Intervention (with VIDEO REPORT)

Tour operator: ‘We need help from the government, something to hold us together until the coronavirus is over’

Hundreds of tourism professionals gathered among the greenery of a park opposite Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, on Thursday to demand a meeting with the incoming minister responsible for the sector.

They warned that without government action, the industry will crumble due to coronavirus restrictions, including what are, in effect, closed borders.

Aviv Jasman, founder of the Israel Unlimited tour company, was one of those sounding the alarm.

“Nobody listens to [those of us in] tourism. The Ministry of Tourism is confused,” he told The Media Line.

“We need to show what we want, and we need to do it now,” he said. “I set this [protest] date to wake up, just wake up all the organizations, all the bodies, tour guides, hotels, whatever, and to unite, because when you unite, you are much more powerful.”

The government has enforced strict directives in its fight against the pandemic, sealing off the country to outsiders unless they are willing to enter 14 days of quarantine immediately on arrival.

As few, if any, visitors are willing to do this, the move has ravaged tourism, bringing the sector to a screeching halt, with projected losses topping $2.7 billion.

Outbound tour operator Claire Balas told The Media Line that she has lost all of her clients for this year.

“We are unemployed. The companies that we work for are unemployed,” she stated.

“We are not getting any money from the government and we are all at a red line,” Balas continued. “This is our problem. We need help from the government, something to hold us together until the coronavirus is over.”

Tour guides, who are self-employed, complain that the state does not provide them with unemployment benefits, as it does for others.

Guide Ofir Malakai told The Media Line it was time to reopen the borders and get back to work.

“I have customers from Canada, Australia, the US and more, who really want to come here,” he said. “A hospital manager in Canada tells me that if the borders were to open, he would come. People want to travel and see Israel.”

Israel’s tourism industry was soaring in the past few years, with record-breaking numbers of tourists, bringing with them billions of dollars. Jasman says the lockdown has hurt many Israelis whose livelihood depends on them.

“One in five Israelis… makes a living from tourism,” he stated, saying it accounts for revenues of NIS 23 billion, the equivalent of about $6.5 billion. “It is the sixth-largest field for the Israeli GDP.”

Israel is gradually easing its coronavirus restrictions, allowing students to go back to school, shopping centers to reopen, and workers to get back to work. But so far, no date has been set for opening the borders to foreign tourists.

Ronnie Ariav, an outbound tour operator, says he has taken thousands of Israelis on tours abroad, but with the fear of contracting coronavirus, he’s not flying anywhere.

“Our border and the other borders are closed, all over the world,” he told The Media Line. “I can’t take groups out of Israel. I am here without any work, with nothing.”

Jasman says he cannot emphasize enough the sector’s importance.

“We have to save tourism,” he said. “Tourism is our oxygen…. It is oxygen for the Israeli economy.”

Ariav echoes these sentiments.

“There is nothing now,” he said. “There is no business at all.”

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