Israel Carefully Opens Its Gates to Int’l Visitors

Israel Carefully Opens Its Gates to Int’l Visitors

Foreigners with first-degree Israeli relatives can already apply to enter, tour groups will be able to arrive starting May 23, but limited opening is criticized

Almost 5 million Israelis, more than 50% of the country’s entire population, have been vaccinated, and life in the small country is rapidly returning to normal. Stores are open, the streets are bustling, and since the beginning of the week, masks in open areas are off and the education system is fully in business. Israel’s gates have also unlocked and are expected to open gradually over the following months. While a combined ministerial effort is looking to accept Israel’s first foreign tourists on May 23, the strict limitations imposed on this opening may make it irrelevant to the ailing tourism industry.

Here are the conditions to enter at present.

Currently, no matter where one comes from or who one is, entry into Israel requires a negative PCR test conducted no more than 72 hours prior to departure from the country of origin. Additionally, within 24 hours of their flight, all entrants must fill out an “inbound passenger statement,” available online, that asks for personal information, a health status declaration, and their arrangement for the period of quarantine.

For non-Israelis, the only path to entry is by receiving special approval from the Population and Immigration Authority or the Foreign Ministry. Applying for approval can be done through an Israeli consulate or using an online form. However, even under all the present limitations, those eligible to enter must meet specific criteria detailed in a long list on the government website, which in itself reflects a relaxation on limitations that took effect on April 7.

For example, those with first-degree relatives living permanently in Israel can now visit freely, if they’re vaccinated or recovered patients. Nonvaccinated non-Israelis can enter if they are married to an Israeli citizen or permanent resident, or if their children are getting married in the country. University and yeshiva students can also enter under certain conditions. The list goes on, and those contemplating a visit should review the conditions, detailed extensively, before applying.

Quarantine is mandatory for all arrivals who haven’t been fully vaccinated in Israel or do not have an Israeli “recovered patient” certificate. Foreign nationals from abroad in either category can take a serological test, according to the site, and then be exempt from quarantine. The list of accredited labs, however, is currently available only in Hebrew.

Those entering Israel must remain in quarantine for 14 days and are prohibited from using public transportation to reach their place of quarantine, except for a private taxi with the seat next to the driver empty and the windows open. Quarantine time can be shortened to 10 days if two PCR tests are carried out, according to specific time stipulations detailed on the site.

Leaving Israel is, of course, simpler. Passengers without an Israeli vaccination or recovery certificate have to take a PCR test within 72 hours of the flight. A list of labs can be found on the Israeli government’s site. A statement similar to the one required for inbound travelers needs to be filled out no more than 24 hours before departure.

The full set of rules can be found on the Israeli government’s site.

Rabbi Dov Lipman, a former Knesset member and currently the secretary-general of the Confederation of United Zionists, was central to the opening of Israel’s gates to international visitors under the present conditions. Lipman isn’t happy with the severe limitations still in place on entry into the country but told The Media Line, “If you’re asking if there’s an amount of progress, the answer is yes.”

Lipman explained that he was motivated to act for the opening of Israel’s gates by immigrants from abroad who suddenly found themselves cut off from their families. “People were really suffering,” he said, with grandparents unable to see their newborn grandchildren, and events of great joy and sorrow happening beyond the reach of close family members. “We now have parents coming and seeing their grandchildren for the first time, grandparents being there for the bar mitzvahs of their grandchildren, people coming for weddings of siblings; it’s a significant change,” he said.

“I certainly value, and very much, the whole idea of rules regarding corona,” Lipman says, but following the successful vaccination drive locally and an increase in inoculation numbers worldwide, “the time has come to also take into consideration people’s emotional and mental health needs.”

The activist is now lobbying with partners to further open the country’s gates. “Either we believe in the vaccinations or we don’t,” he explained. If we believe in the vaccine, the rabbi said there’s no reason why all those who have been vaccinated globally shouldn’t be able to enter. He would also like unvaccinated relatives to be able to attend major family events. “Our next step is really to work very hard to allow unvaccinated family members to come for births – that’s a very important step – and then also certainly to allow for unvaccinated grandparents to come for weddings.”

Israel is indeed looking to open further. A top-ranking official in the Tourism Ministry told The Media Line that Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen and Health Minister Yuli Edelstein reached an agreement last week to “gradually reopen tourism in Israel.” The agreement, which was followed by a joint statement, includes a gradual plan whose details are being ironed out. The first stage, beginning on May 23, will have the country welcoming its first foreign tourists in more than a year.

The official, who asked not to be named as he isn’t authorized to speak on behalf of the ministry, said that a small number of tour groups comprising vaccinated tourists will be able to enter at first. A second step, according to the plan, is opening the country to an unlimited number of groups, while the last step, hoped for July, is the complete opening to vaccinated visitors. The progression through the plan’s stages depends on Israel continuing to exhibit very low numbers of diagnosed cases, as well as progress in the worldwide vaccination drive.

The joint statement by the Tourism and Health ministries explains that “all visitors will be required to undergo a PCR test before boarding the flight to Israel, and a serological test to prove their vaccination upon arrival at Ben-Gurion International Airport. Meanwhile, discussions will continue with various countries to reach agreements for vaccine-certificate validation, so as to cancel the need for the serological test.”

The small number of tourists will be of little consolation to Israel’s devastated tourism sector, but the official explains that “we want to have something starting in the next few weeks as opposed to waiting for July or August,” which will supply employment for some within the industry.

Joe Yudin, the owner and manager of Touring Israel, a luxury touring company, is beyond the point of exasperation with the opening of the country, however. “Only vaccinated people who have taken this serology test and are coming from countries that have a deal with Israel will be allowed in, and who are members of a group of five people or more, and go through a tour operator that wins a lottery that has yet to be held. And there have yet to be any deals with many other countries,” he told The Media Line, his frustration clear as he listed the conditions that make the current opening a nonstarter in his eyes.

Yudin says that he is contacted daily by potential customers interested in visiting the country at the forefront of the global vaccination effort, but he can offer them nothing at present. “We’re telling people that we hope they’ll be able to come in July. … We could have had the biggest summer ever but the government is just dragging the feet,” he said, referring to the immense interest he is seeing in visiting the country.

Faced with this criticism, the ministry official explained that the current bottleneck limiting arrivals is the issue of verification of vaccination certificates. Without international regulations to standardize the matter, Israel cannot be sure if those seeking entry have actually been vaccinated and it is refusing to take this chance. However, he says the ministry is hoping a serology test that returns results within 15 minutes will be available at the airport as early as the end of the week.

This, coupled with agreements of mutual recognition of vaccination certificates, currently being discussed with several countries, should help open the country much more significantly. While this path appears promising, timeliness is essential; Yudin suspects that another summer without business may deal a deathblow to Israel’s incoming tourism businesses.

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