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‘Miserable, Thoughtless and Cowardly’: Israel’s Tourism Sector Rails Against Government
A man holds up a sign reading "Liberman, find another job," following remarks by the Israeli finance minister, as hundreds gathered at Ben Gurion Airport on December 13 to protest the border closure due to prevent the spread of the omicron variant of the coronavirus. (Wai-Lam Chan)

‘Miserable, Thoughtless and Cowardly’: Israel’s Tourism Sector Rails Against Government

Industry experts warn that Israel is falling behind and stands to lose billions in revenue from tourists

Miserable, a slap in the face, and cowardly are just some of the words people working in Israel’s tourism sector are using to describe the Israeli government’s most recent wave of travel restrictions.

In a bid to stop the new omicron variant of COVID-19 from spreading, foreign nationals are once again barred from entering the country and vaccinated Israelis who return from abroad are required to quarantine for three days with two negative tests. While Israelis currently are permitted to travel, the government has said that it would update every 24 hours a list of “red” countries to which travel is forbidden, effectively rendering trip planning impossible.

Yaniv Poria, a professor of tourism and dean of Ben-Gurion University’s Eilat Campus, called Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s decisions irresponsible and reprimanded Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov for failing to stand up for an industry that has been one of the hardest hit by the pandemic.

“If the prime minister makes a miserable, thoughtless, and cowardly decision to shut down tourism in Israel when other countries are not doing the same – preventing tourists from visiting Israel while allowing Israelis to travel abroad – then the tourism minister should have made sure that there would be some form of compensation,” Poria told The Media Line. “It can’t be that the government considered whether or not to close the skies, but didn’t prepare any kind of compensation package. The prime minister is ignoring tourism workers.”

A man holds up a poster with a caricature portraying Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov and Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman “burying” incoming tourism. (Wai-Lam Chan)

According to Poria, the decision to shut down everything down so quickly has led many global suppliers in travel to reconsider doing business with Israel in the future.

“In Cyprus, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and the rest of Europe life goes on. It’s only in Israel that things are at a standstill so they don’t want to do business with us,” he said.

Israel in the long run will find itself with a severe labor shortage in tourism and hospitality and unable to compete with other popular destinations. In fact, Israel is beginning to fall far behind other countries that have chosen to invest in this arena, Poria warned.

“Our competitors are continuing to work and move forward,” he said. “In fact, it is during this crisis that the government should have invested in tourism infrastructure, improve the tourism experience, add attractions and figure out how to add buses on the Sabbath. This is what other countries are doing.”

The industry does not only include hotel staff and tour guides, but also bus drivers, restaurateurs, shopkeepers and many others in fields that depend heavily on tourists.

Some 500 workers gathered at Ben-Gurion Airport on Monday to protest government inaction.

The outrage followed controversial statements made by Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman on Sunday, who said that tour guides and travel agents “should find another job.”

A man at the tourism sector protest at Ben Gurion Airport on December 13, 2021 holds up a sign depicting Prime Minister Naftali Bennett as the Grinch. (Wai-Lam Chan)

Poria called Liberman’s statements unacceptable and emphasized that those tourism workers had gone above and beyond to ensure that all the necessary precautions were taken to avoid spreading COVID-19.

“Governments around the globe are already preparing their tourism industries for the day after the crisis and our finance minister wants to destroy our tourism sector,” Poria said. “By his statements it’s clear that Liberman doesn’t know the tour guide population, which is for the most part made up of veterans in the field, some of them are over 50 years old. They are not at that stage in their lives where they can undergo professional retraining that will lead to alternative careers.”

After his remarks caused an uproar, Liberman on Monday walked them back and said that his ministry is in the process of putting together a compensation package for tourism workers.

“My words could have been better but the numbers are correct,” he said at the beginning of a meeting with his Yisrael Beitenu party.

Liberman was referring to figures that showed a sharp decrease in tourism in Israel, which dropped from a record-breaking 4.5 million annual visitors – representing $8 billion revenue – before the coronavirus, down to about 370,000 in 2020.

With no end in sight to ever-changing travel restrictions, Israel’s tourism industry has already seen most of its labor force laid off. Amid the emergence of the new omicron variant, on November 27 – less than a month after Israel had reopened to tourism after being closed for well over a year – the government once against shut everything down.

Alessandra Waldman, a certified tour guide since 2009, had just come up for air after being out of work for over a year.

“I [guided] a group and we started to add reservations for Christmas and January,” Waldman told The Media Line. “We looked at it with optimism and then all of a sudden everything was closed and canceled. It was really depressing.”

Waldman, 47, attended Monday’s demonstration with several of her colleagues. For her, Liberman’s remarks were a “slap in the face” that showed just how much the government undervalues an important economic sector.

The mostly empty parking lot at Ben Gurion Airport on December 13, 2021. (Alessandra Waldman)

Future protests are in the cards, she said.

“Everyone treats tour guides like they’re doing something fun and not a real job,” Waldman said. “We’re very serious about [our work]. … I’m 47 and this is my profession. I built it over time and I don’t know where to turn to because I’m not specialized in other things.”

At the protest, Waldman said she heard many in attendance talking about how things were easier under former Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, despite the skies being hermetically sealed for much of 2020.

Last year, Netanyahu’s government approved a 300 million shekel, or about $95 million aid package aimed at helping hotels hit by restrictions.

“He said from the beginning that he would help this industry and he actually did it,” she explained. “The feeling with this government is that they don’t give a damn.”

 

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