Israel Reopens: Country Sees Slow Return of Foreign Visitors
Tourism sector looks to the Christmas season in hope of greater numbers
Under the entrance policy for foreign nationals that took effect on November 1, international visitors (beyond a few pilot groups) can once again enter the Jewish state. For the first time since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, individual tourists can enter. Israel is opening its gates to vaccinated or recovering tourists, who will have to supply the results of a PCR test before entry.
Still, the policy, created jointly by the Health and Tourism ministries, places considerable limits on entry. Those twice vaccinated cannot be more than 180 days away from their second shot. However, for Israel’s battered tourism industry, the country’s reopening is a ray of hope.
“We are certainly very happy that the skies are reopening. We’ve waited for this for a long time,” Yaron Burgin, co-owner and CEO of Abraham Hostels and Tours, a company that has hostels in four locations in Israel, told The Media Line.
“We are beginning to see a ‘light drizzle’ of orders. … The first major rain day [of winter] is preceded by [days of] light rain, and this is the same. The numbers aren’t large, and certainly not what they were before, but things are beginning” to move,” Burgin says.
He estimates that two to three years will pass before Israel experiences the same numbers of incoming tourists as entered in 2018 and 2019. However, looking to the Christmas season, Burgin expects to see significant improvement.
At present, Burgin says, the daily reservations per location are in the single to double digits, but he expects them to rise quickly. The visitors are mainly Europeans, who also constituted the majority of independent visitors to Israel before the pandemic, he explains, especially among Abraham Hostels’ clientele. “At the end of the day, they are the ones whose vaccination certificates are recognized and it’s easiest for them to fit within the limitations.”
To encourage tourists to choose Israel as their destination, Abraham Hostels has taken it upon itself to help visitors navigate the regulations and bureaucracy surrounding entry to the country.
“The interest in traveling is strong but there is a lot of uncertainty,” says Burgin. “We are trying to minimize that uncertainty by detailing the regulations exactly, creating ‘Q&As’ … and by saying, ‘Come and we at Abraham’s will help you with coping with the authorities if that is needed.”
Burgin says he is feeling “careful optimism.” There is no talk of again reclosing the borders and reinstating harsher limitations. “This is how the world works at present, we accept and understand that, and are happy that we’re at the point where things have reopened,” he says. “I can tell you that my team here is very excited to all of a sudden receive questions in English and hear a little bit of English and other languages in the hallways. That’s something we haven’t had for almost two years and for us was very, very unusual.”
Katerina Brokhes, vice president of sales at Alrov Luxury Hotels, which has two major hotels in Jerusalem’s city center, is more cautious.
“The moment they opened the first pilot in the summer we were among the first to welcome tourists and returning guests. Orders are definitely increasing at present but we are still guardedly optimistic, if only because we’ve learned that things change during this period and also, the limitations on children are still a challenge,” she told The Media Line.
Israel began to gradually reopen during the summer, starting with a few groups of foreign visitors, but the fourth wave of COVID-19 put a crimp in the program. And since few children under the age of 12 have been vaccinated against the novel coronavirus, few are eligible to enter the country.
However, the fast-paced changes in policies have not deterred the Alrov hotels. “Once the government allowed hotels to reopen, we opened the Alrov hotels as usual” and fully, says Brokhes. She adds that the hotels have hosted guests of embassies and of the Israeli Foreign Ministry throughout the pandemic, and so have had foreign guests continuously.
To attract visitors, Brokhes says that Alrov took the opportunity to renovate and open a new restaurant and children’s area.
“We’re maintaining high standards and so are ready for all kinds of tourists, domestic and international,” she says.