Israel’s tourism sector faces two challenges associated with July 1. That’s the day the country had been set to begin welcoming individual (vaccinated) foreign visitors but in light of an outbreak of the novel coronavirus’ delta (“Indian”) variant, that has been put off for at least a month.
The end of June also marks the end for most job seekers of extended unemployment benefits, and tourism-related companies fear employees who were furloughed as a result of the downturn in business as a result of the pandemic will leave for another industry, adding yet another burden on companies trying to keep their doors open.
Under the rules laid out by new Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, people under the age of 45 who lost their jobs due to COVID-19 closures will cease receiving unemployment benefits, and many of those over 45 will see reductions in payments.
“Two of my tour guides have found other work, my best tour operator has left and is working in a hotel as a receptionist. … People are leaving because even the ones that get furlough [benefits], they’re not getting their full salary,” Joe Yudin, founder and owner of Touring Israel Luxury Private Tours, told The Media Line. “A lot of tour guides have left the country or have gone into other businesses.”
He is talking about people like Miriam, who declined to give her last name, a Tel Aviv-based former tour guide who has become a bartender.
“I loved my job but I cannot afford to stay,” she told The Media Line, referring to the benefit cutoff for people under the age of 45. “I cannot afford to wait with the uncertainty of when tourists will be allowed back in.
“I have three roommates, and I can barely pay my rent as it is,” she added.
Without foreign tourists, Yudin cannot afford to put his employees back on the payroll, and they face increased pressure to find work in another field.
“I’m going to be left without sales or marketing guys and tour operators and tour guides, and the sad part is that everyone wants to come to Israel,” he said.
Foreign visitors are now set to begin arriving on August 1, but Yudin is skeptical.
“First it was April, then it was May, then it was June 1, then most recently July 1, and now they’re saying August 1,” he said. “I don’t understand what the government expects me to do.”
He called on the government to open Israel’s borders to vaccinated tourists.
“Why is there a resurgence of COVID in Israel? It’s because Israelis are going abroad, coming home, and giving it to their unvaccinated kids who then go to school and spread it there,” Yudin said. “It’s absurd that they let Israelis travel all over the world, but they don’t let vaccinated tourists come into the country.”
However, he believes that Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, is not prepared to screen tourists for COVID-19, given that on June 18, screening for the virus was skipped in some instances due to insufficient resources.
“I don’t think they can handle checking everyone, I don’t think they have the means, I don’t think they have the infrastructure to do COVID checks for every single passenger going back and forth to Israel,” Yudin said. “They can’t even check all the Israelis coming back.”
Yudin was forced to put most of his employees on unpaid leave in April 2020, making them eligible for government assistance that was expanded to accommodate the growing number of people who lost their jobs. He was able to keep two of his 15 employees on payroll thanks to another government program to fund companies directly impacted by coronavirus, but he has not received a check since last December and the state recently asked him to return most of the funding he had received.
“They’re saying I’m not entitled to it, and there is no one to talk to and no other formula to use,” he said, referring to a government-provided calculation based on how much he made every two months in 2019. The actual aid Yudin received actually ended up being less than the computation dictated.
He has applied for financial assistance for all of 2021 but has yet to receive it, which could mean the end of his business.
“I kept two people on the payroll with the promise from the government that the money would be paid every two months,” Yudin said. “I spend more just to keep the business float than the benefits I get and now they want it back, which is money that I don’t have,” he said.