Tourism in Israel, Palestinian Territories Is Picking Up as COVID Slows
Many global factors are having an impact on tourism in Israel and the West Bank, but COVID-19 is still the main reason
The tourism industry in Israel and the Palestinian territories reopened in late 2021 after nearly two years of harsh restrictions to prevent the spread of COVID-19. During the industry’s busiest months of April and May, the numbers are not as high as they were pre-pandemic but are gradually increasing.
Lydia Weitzman, foreign press adviser to Israel’s Tourism Ministry, told The Media Line: “The Israel Ministry of Tourism estimates that approximately 30,000 tourists will arrive in Israel this week for the April holidays of Passover, Easter, and Ramadan. The gradual increase in tourism since the reopening of Israel’s skies last month can be seen and heard in the tourist, religious and cultural sites around the country.”
There have been drastic changes in tourism over the last several years, as expected with tourism heavily restricted until late 2021. Ministry reports provided to The Media Line show that tourism is down by 84% in the first quarter (Q1) of 2022 compared with 2019. There was a 65% decrease in Q1for 2022 compared with 2020, and only 16,000 tourists entered Israel in Q1 of 2021. That number was 1,052,600 in Q1 of 2019.
Israel’s Ministry of Health imposed COVID-19 travel restrictions as early as February 2020. Over one year later, in late May of 2021, vaccinated foreign nationals were allowed to enter Israel for the first time. Tourist visas were not granted until August of 2021 for tour groups, and then under strict guidelines. The ministry announced that all tourists, under specific COVID-19 regulations, could enter the country beginning on November 1, 2021.
COVID PCR tests are still required for international travelers upon arrival at an Israeli airport or border crossing under Health Ministry rules. Holders of an Israeli passport are exempt from this test. Tourists are required to isolate until they receive a negative COVID-19 test, whether or not they are vaccinated.
Tamir Kobrin, general manager of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem, said that bookings are up “threefold” compared to last year. However, the hotel is only filled up to 60% of the volume it saw in March 2019, before the global pandemic hit, he said.
Kobrin told The Media Line that the hotel is welcoming a variety of travelers, rebooked tours, evangelical groups, donors, and political and government delegations. He believes that the war in Ukraine is not significantly impacting visits to the hotel.
The King David in Jerusalem, named 2021 Travelers’ Choice Hotel by Tripadvisor, is receiving daily cancellations due to cases of the coronavirus, according to Kobrin. The recent security threats also are having a small impact on hotel business, he added, but COVID-19 is the main cause of booking cancellations and it seems it will continue to be around a while longer.
Green Olive Tours is an alternative tour company established in 2007, providing tours in Israel and the West Bank on culture, politics, and the history of Israel and Palestine. A representative of the company told The Media Line that business is slowly picking back up, but there is still a drastic difference between the company’s busiest months, April and May, in 2022 versus 2019.
Green Olive Tours tour guides were forced to find new ways of making money during the nearly two years that Israel did not allow tourists to enter the country. The tour company draws an international, English-speaking crowd and serves many travelers from Europe. Only some of the tour guides have returned to Green Olives Tours.
Tourists from Europe are not visiting Israel like they were before the global pandemic, according to figures reported by the Tourism Ministry. In fact, for many countries, fewer tourists have visited in Q1 of 2022 compared with 2020. For example, 58,700 tourists arrived in Israel from Poland in Q1 of 2019. In 2020, that number was 45,000 and only 1,900 in 2022. Tourism from Belarus was almost identical in Q1 of 2019 and 2020, then dropped significantly in 2022. The numbers are 12,100, 11,200 and 1,100 respectively. This year’s Q1 figures include the start of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Green Olive Tours has seen some cancellations recently due to the heightened tension in the region. While some people remain too nervous to travel right now, the economic conditions following the pandemic are contributing more to the overall lower numbers this year, according to the company. The rise in costs in travel and accommodations required the company to increase its rates, as did many companies around the world. People cannot afford to travel in the post-pandemic era, according to the company representative.
In contrast, Mark Feldman, CEO & founder of Ziontours Jerusalem, an American company located in Jerusalem, told The Media Line that “tourists are coming here in droves that we haven’t seen in years.”
American tourism to Israel has picked up to about half of what it was from January 2019 to March 2019, according to the Tourism Ministry.
Feldman said that Ziontours has not seen cancellations due to concerns over security issues. He says that other world events, like the war in Ukraine and elections in France, have taken precedence in international media coverage. The overshadowing of Israeli security concerns on platforms such as CNN and Fox News has helped to keep tourists coming, he says.
Crystal Dunlap is an intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program.