Israeli Tourism Officials: We’re Ready for Foreign Visitors When Skies Open Again
Within weeks, Israel could see the first foreign visitors arriving at Ben-Gurion International Airport since the country closed its borders to non-nationals in mid-March because of the coronavirus pandemic.
Last week, health officials told the Knesset that they are working on a plan to allow international travelers to enter Israel from “green” countries with low infection rates of the coronavirus starting on August 16. On Monday, Israel’s coronavirus czar, Prof. Ronni Gamzu, approved a plan to allow around 17,000 foreign students entry into Israel, although the Health Ministry didn’t say when they would be allowed in.
On Thursday, however, Gamzu appeared to throw cold water on any short-term plans to allow foreign tourists and students into the country until Israel significantly reduces its number of daily coronavirus cases. Gamzu said that unless cases are reduced to the “hundreds” by September 1, Israel could face another lockdown.
Israel has the highest per capita COVID-19 morbidity rate in the world, according to Gamzu. As of Thursday, the total number of cases in Israel stood at 78,514 with 569 deaths and 53,362 recoveries, according to the Johns Hopkins coronavirus tracker.
When the skies finally open and Israel begins welcoming foreign visitors, what can they expect? What tourist attractions will be open to them? What coronavirus prevention measures will be in place?
“Jerusalem is not just ready. We are keen and eager to have our foreign tourists back,” Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, deputy mayor of Jerusalem in charge of foreign relations and tourism, told The Media Line.
Hassan-Nahoum said that she formed a municipal tourism committee soon after the coronavirus outbreak began to deal with the crisis more efficiently.
The city has been focusing on attracting domestic tourists, a tough sell with many Israelis traditionally flocking to the resorts of Eilat and the Dead Sea during the summer months. Hassan-Nahoum said that Jerusalem is normally 80% foreign and 20% local while Eilat is the reverse.
The coronavirus prevention protocols put in place for local tourism means that the Holy City is ready for an influx of foreign visitors whenever they return, according to Hassan-Nahoum.
Most tourist attractions in Jerusalem have been open for weeks, Hassan-Nahoum said, including popular sites such as the Tower of David and the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo.
Jerusalem is exploring innovative ways to keep visitors safe from the coronavirus, Hassan-Nahoum continued.
“We have a lot of technology in waiting. Tourist technology that can help us with crowd control, testing for temperature, checking in with minimal contact with hotel staff. We’ve got all sorts of similar technologies that we are trying to put forward and encourage,” Hassan-Nahoum said.
Last year, Israel welcomed a record 4.5 million visitors, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Like Jerusalem, Tel Aviv also relies heavily on foreign visitors, with the same figure of 80% foreign and 20% local.
Out of more than 100 hotels in Tel Aviv, 60% are currently open, Oded Grofman, director-general of the Tel Aviv Hotels Association, told The Media Line.
Grofman described the situation as complex. Not only are hotels in Tel Aviv dealing with low occupancy rates due to the loss of foreign visitors, but prices have dropped as well.
He said that hotels are following the “Purple Standard for Operating Hotels in Israel,” guidelines for coronavirus prevention released in May by the Ministry of Tourism.
“The date we started reopening the hotels, all the hotels had to sign the paper and follow the rules and the government is following it,” Grofman said. “People are checking their temperature when they come. The main thing is to check them when they come to Israel. We have a very good procedure.”
And what should international tourists expect when they leave their hotel rooms?
We have a lot of technology in waiting. Tourist technology that can help us with crowd control, testing for temperature, checking in with minimal contact with hotel staff. We’ve got all sorts of similar technologies that we are trying to put forward and encourage
Yael Froman-Ideses, director of tourism at Tel Aviv Global & Tourism, a subsidiary of the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo, told The Media Line that all of the attractions are open, including the Independence Trail, Sarona, the Carmel Market, Jaffa and the beach.
“Tourists arriving toward the end of the year will also be able to enjoy a range of new attractions that we are developing at this very moment in Jaffa, and at the Yitzhak Rabin Memorial to mark 25 years since his assassination,” added Froman-Ideses.
Down south in Eilat, where most of the tourists are Israelis, hotels have been putting the “purple” guidelines into practice with higher occupancy rates compared to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem that rely mostly on incoming tourism.
Queen of Sheba Hotel staff interviewed by The Media Line said that the hotel has been following the “purple” guidelines, including taking the temperature of every guest entering the hotel, requiring guests and staff to a wear a mask covering their nose and mouth or a plastic face-covering in public spaces, limiting capacity in dining halls, taking extra time to clean the rooms, placing hand sanitizers across the hotel and putting instructional signs in prominent locations.
The Queen of Sheba Hotel in Eilat demonstrates the “Purple Standard” coronavirus measures in place there. (YouTube)
The employees interviewed by The Media Line said that restaurants in Eilat were open alongside tourist attractions such as Dolphin Reef and Coral World Underwater Observatory.
“I think that by the time foreign guests come, everything will be open as usual. Open but with restrictions of how many people and mask-wearing and things like that,” Davina Semana, personal assistant to the hotel’s general manager, Mickey Schneider, told The Media Line.
In Tel Aviv in 2018 there were more than 1.5 million hotel guests and over 3.6 million overnight stays, according to the Municipality of Tel Aviv-Yafo
“We miss the tourism. It’s sad to come to a hotel in the lobby and to be by yourself. Next to the pool,” Grofman said. “We have a great beach. We have a great nightlife. Where are the tourists? We need them. This is our bread and butter. We have to be optimistic in this kind of industry.”