Let My People Go: Travel Sector Clamors for Clarity Ahead of Passover
Demand for holiday getaways remains high despite COVID-19 restrictions, tour operators report
The kosher travel sector is moving ahead with Passover holiday programs in Israel and abroad despite ongoing uncertainty about airport closures and confusion over health restrictions due to the coronavirus.
Holiday tour packages were all but canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but this year tour operators and agencies are reporting a surge in demand from travel-hungry people around the world.
“In Israel we are full-steam ahead right now and almost booked up in full,” David Walles, general manager and CEO of Kosher Travelers, told The Media Line. “Unless there’s a snap lockdown we’ll be going ahead,” he said.
We get an email every five minutes from someone around the world who wants to come, but right now the skies are closed
Walles’ travel agency offers kosher vacation packages as well as deluxe cruises.
“We get an email every five minutes from someone around the world who wants to come, but right now the skies are closed,” he said. “There is a corona fatigue that has set in and people are anxious and ready to travel as soon as possible. We’re seeing that in the number of inquiries,” he added.
Passover, or Pesach in Hebrew, commemorates the liberation of the Hebrews from slavery in Egypt, as told in the Book of Exodus. It is one of the most important holidays on the Jewish calendar and this year will be celebrated beginning March 27 at sundown and ending at nightfall on April 3. During the festival, observant Jews rid their pantries of all leavened breads and hold a ceremonial meal known as a seder. They also refrain from eating bread and bread products for the entire holiday.
Rather than conduct in-depth house cleanings or cook large meals, many opt to travel and spend the holiday at special all-inclusive programs around the globe.
However, Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport is closed to travel for all foreign nationals and entry to the country is only allowed for up to 2,000 citizens per day. The shutdown is in place until March 6, although some Health Ministry officials have suggested the airport could remain closed through Passover due to fears of new virus variants entering the country and undoing vaccination efforts.
For these reasons, Kosher Travelers and other tour operators say they are focusing only on the domestic Israeli market at the moment.
There are three remaining Passover programs available: Hacienda Forest View Hotel in the Galilee, Inbal Hotel in Jerusalem, and Ramat Rachel Resort in Jerusalem. A nine-night package costs roughly $5,000 per couple, according to Walles.
“We and the hotels that we work with comply 100% with the Ministry of Health regulations,” he said.
Exactly what restrictions the Israeli government decides to put in place in time for Passover remains to be seen. Unfortunately, that makes programs such as those offered by Kosher Travelers nearly impossible to properly plan.
“People just want clarity,” Walles said. “The problem is that the Israeli government keeps chopping and changing, and nobody can make plans because things are so uncertain.”
Another potential obstacle is not knowing whether hotels will be permitted to reopen dining rooms or serve food to guests, both crucial components of any enjoyable Passover hotel stay.
If the government is not allowing food provision, they’re saying that the hotels cannot open for Pesach
“All of the hotels are now open but there is no food provision,” Benjy Eisenberg, CEO of PesachIsrael.com, told The Media Line. “Every minute the whole story changes.”
Eisenberg has been organizing Jewish holiday programs for English speakers for four years. Like Walles, he is focusing entirely on the domestic sector this year and has canceled bookings for international tourists.
Due to the difficulties, PesachIsrael.com only has one program in place, at the Nir Etzion Resort hotel in northern Israel. There are 136 rooms at the hotel and they are already at 80 percent capacity for the week of Passover.
“If the government is not allowing food provision, they’re saying that the hotels cannot open for Pesach,” Eisenberg said. “It would really be a massive blow because they know that the hotel industry has been hit the hardest and will be the last in terms of recovery,” he also said.
Currently, only people who have a vaccination certificate or an official proof of recovery from the coronavirus can be admitted to a hotel in Israel. Children have to present a negative COVID-19 test result.
Outside of Israel, travel firms also are shifting their focus to the domestic side of tourism.
Helit Edelstein is the marketing director at Kosherica, a leading kosher travel company that has been in business for nearly three decades. With many travel restrictions still in full force, this year Kosherica is only offering programs with hotels located within the US.
“We’re taking the safety precautions incredibly seriously,” Edelstein told The Media Line. “Our guests are concerned and we need to make sure that everything we do is with the utmost safety,” she added.
Before the pandemic, Kosherica could book over 1,000 people in one hotel alone for Passover. In light of social-distancing regulations, these numbers have been drastically reduced – down to a third or even a quarter of what they were in pre-COVID-19 times.
“We are slammed on our phone calls for Pesach but it’s just a matter of who we can take in,” Edelstein said. “We have very little availability because we need to make sure that we can accommodate social distancing,” she added.
Our guests are concerned and we need to make sure that everything we do is with the utmost safety
Kosherica is offering several holiday programs, including stays at the Hyatt Regency Grand Reserve Puerto Rico, a US territory, and the PGA National Resort and Spa in West Palm Beach, Florida. Prices in Puerto Rico range from $4,850 to $38,000 for a luxury penthouse condo suite for two adults and up to four children. A full 10-night stay for a couple at the PGA, meanwhile, begins at $5,375 per couple, while a luxury suite costs $8,800.
In the Puerto Rico hotel, “every room has UV air filtration systems [that] clean the air,” Edelstein explained, noting that the rooms were also entirely accessible from the outdoors.
As health regulations and travel restrictions continue to throw the travel industry for a loop, many hotels have decided to wait until 2022 to reopen to Passover holiday travelers.
“There are lots of issues that Passover operators have to navigate, which means that a lot of them are just deciding to sit it out,” Raphi Bloom, co-owner of TotallyJewishTravel.com, told The Media Line.
Launched in 1999, TotallyJewishTravel.com is a top Jewish tourism website that works with over 300 travel companies. While the site normally advertises 130 Passover programs annually, there are presently only 30 different options available.
Prices vary depending on location, length of stay, and the number of guests. Among the dozens of hotels available are the Ritz Carlton in Cancun, the Grand Hotel Rimini in Italy, and the luxury Mazagan Beach and Golf Resort in Morocco, to name but a few.
Like other travel professionals, Bloom says he has received a surprising number of inquiries from people wishing to travel this year, especially to Dubai.
“People are really desperate to get away,” Bloom said.