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Priority Tour Groups Visit Israel as Gov’t Fails to Send Clear Reopening Message

After days of unconfirmed rumors and snippets of misinformation regarding when Israel would finally allow foreign tourists to visit en masse, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett convened his “corona cabinet” on Sunday in an effort to coordinate the government’s response to the resurgent delta variant.

Meanwhile, a limited number of groups of foreign nationals continue to enter the country, as part of a Tourism Ministry pilot program, through educational programs, and as members of parliamentary delegations.

A spokesperson for the ministry, Lydia Weitzman, explained that only about 1,500 tourists are scheduled to visit Israel by the end of July under the pilot project. While the first 20 groups arrived in June under a lottery system, subsequent groups of between five and 30 vaccinated persons can be brought into the country by any tour operator, as long as they meet the criteria set by the Health and Tourism ministries.

“Most of the groups originated in the US, with others coming from Europe, the UK and South America,” the Tourism Ministry told The Media Line. “Many, but not all, of the tourists arriving in groups are Christian pilgrims, with others coming for sightseeing and leisure touring.”

The Israel Tourism Ministry hosts a short tour of ancient Caesarea with the legends of Barça Legends Barcelona football club, July 19, 2021. (Oded Karni)

As of Monday, there were eight groups from North and South America traveling in Israel.

Meanwhile, non-tourist groups continue to enter the country in accordance with government guidelines. Among these was a party of some 40 members of the French parliament who made their way to Israel on July 19, in an initiative of the European Leadership Network (ELNET), a nonpartisan NGO, in cooperation with the Israeli Foreign Ministry.

Pierre-Henri Dumont, a member of the Foreign Affairs Committee in the French National Assembly, spoke to The Media Line about the delegation’s three-day visit.

“The purpose of the trip was first to meet the new government,” he said. “For me, it was the third time I was coming here to Israel. And it was to find out how things have changed since the Abraham Accords [normalizing relations between Israel and four Arab countries]. I mean, that’s a huge game-changer in the conflict in the Middle East.”

Dumont described his experience of entering the country during the pandemic as “more difficult [than before the pandemic]. Obviously, we had to run some tests, but the Israeli health professionals were actually very efficient.”

Jacob Monty, a Houston-based lawyer who co-founded the Center for Latino-Jewish Relations along with Peter Tarlow, has brought over 100 Latino leaders to Israel since 2011.

Monty told The Media Line that his group of 13 young Latino leaders, which entered Israel as part of the Tourism Ministry’s pilot program, was on a hasbara (public diplomacy) trip.

“We were part of the initial June lottery and the main purpose of our trip, the mission, was to connect US Latino leaders to Israel and to develop a relationship between the two communities,” he said.

Participants in the Center for Latino-Jewish Relations trip at the site of Jesus’ baptism, on the Jordan River. (Courtesy Center for Latino-Jewish Relations)

Tarlow told The Media Line “it was extremely difficult” to bring a group into the country. “There was one roadblock after another. Many times, I thought of giving up.”

When asked to elaborate, he explained, “There’s a tremendous amount of bureaucracy and they kept changing [things]. We were supposed to come in June. We moved to July because they were going to have ‘open skies.’ At the last moment, they changed [it].”

This comes just one day after the government’s welcome yet overdue clarification over its response to the delta variant.

For tour operators like Mark Feldman, director of travel consultancy Diesenhaus BTC’s Jerusalem office, the problem for tourism professionals “is that we need the government to speak from one mouth, [with] one voice.”

“What’s happened in the last few days is the prime minister told Israelis not to travel [abroad], the Health Ministry said that we should close the airport down, other officials have announced that tourists will not be allowed in from August 1. Everybody’s speaking out of both sides of their mouth,” he said.

Bennett and his advisers decided that the Public Security Ministry, which oversees the Israel Police, would henceforth manage all enforcement aspects regarding the novel coronavirus.

From now on, there will be “criminal indictments against verified coronavirus patients who knowingly violate quarantine and endanger public health,” and this will be implemented using technological tools such as the Haskamon phone app to enforce quarantine, the prime minister’s media adviser said.

Using the app, police can send an SMS to someone under quarantine’s smartphone. When they click on the message, the app sends police their location.

Because of the delta variant, which accounts for more than 90% of new COVID-19 cases in Israel, the number of daily infections has been rising steadily since mid-June, surpassing a thousand on July 13, and numbering 1,237 on July 19. Still, thanks to the high level of vaccination, there are only 60 coronavirus patients in serious condition.

The new government emphasis on enforcement confirms the suspicions of those like Feldman who argue that “the problem is that people have been flouting the quarantine.”

Nevertheless, for tour operators and other business owners relying on incoming tourism, the announcement appears to foreshadow further postponement of Israel’s reopening date.

Adi Licher, company director at A.R. Eland Tours, says the general belief is that reopening will now be postponed from August 1 to September 1. Yet, he explained to The Media Line, “September in Israel will be a month full of holidays, so I don’t think they are going to open it in September, and even if it will be open, nobody will come.”

The Tourism Ministry told The Media Line, “With morbidity rates rising in Israel and around the world due to the delta variant, discussions are continuing with the relevant government ministries regarding an opening date for incoming individual tourism. An announcement will be made when relevant.”

Licher anxiously awaits the reopening. When asked how his company was adapting to the limited volume of incoming tourism, he lamented that “we are experts in incoming [tourism], so trying to do something else is like trying to start a new business. So, for now, actually, we are doing nothing.”

Oksana Mats from Bein Harim Tourism Services echoed the sentiment, telling The Media Line, “We do incoming tourism, so basically we wait for the skies to be open. We don’t have any domestic tourism [clients].”

For those relying on incoming tourism, there is scant relief until the country reopens, and business is practically nonexistent. Feldman told The Media Line that “we’re 70% down [from 2019]. In other words, it’s a massive decrease both in ingoing and outgoing [tourism].”

Prospects for tour operators were rendered even worse with the announcement that as of July 23, Spain and Kyrgyzstan will be added to the list of countries banned for travel. Other nations currently under travel ban are Argentina, Belarus, Brazil, India, Mexico, Russia, South Africa and Uzbekistan.

Additionally, 15 countries were listed as high risk on July 16, meaning that tourists entering from those nations must isolate upon arrival in Israel, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated or are recovered from the virus. On July 23, 11 additional countries will be added to this list, including Britain, Cyprus and Turkey.

Yet for non-tourist groups such as the French delegation, business continues as usual. The lawmakers from the French National Assembly and Senate, the largest delegation to arrive in Israel since the outbreak of COVID-19, came to represent the country’s broad political spectrum, meet Israel’s new political leadership, and discuss Israel-France relations and the mutual interests Europe has with Israel.

The delegation met with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett on Monday evening before journeying south to see an Iron Dome air defense battery, attend a security briefing, and meet with the mayor of Sderot, Alon Davidi, who introduced them to residents of the city living under constant threat of terrorism and rockets from the nearby Gaza Strip.

Members of the French National Assembly and Senate visit Israel’s South to see the Iron Dome aerial defense system, Jul. 19, 2021. (Hanan Bar Assouline/ELNET)

Dumont and the other parliamentarians discussed Israel’s and France’s respective vaccination campaigns with top Israeli health officials.

“We need to find a way, both in Israel and in France, and I think in all other Western countries, to vaccinate the 20% of people who are not willing to get the vaccine because we think, and I think, that it’s the only solution to end this pandemic,” Dumont commented.

Looking at the problem with a wider focus, he went on to posit that “we need to find a way to send vaccines to the third world countries, to make sure that the pandemic will not develop new variants that could be more dangerous even if we are vaccinated.”

The need to revitalize tourism has become urgent for Israel’s economy. A Tourism Ministry spokesperson said, “The limits imposed on incoming tourism have had a devastating effect on the Israeli tourism industry.”

Whereas 2019 was a record-breaking year, with inbound travelers creating over 200,000 jobs and adding NIS 22 billion (around $6.7 billion) to Israel’s economy, the spokesperson acknowledged that “the continuing spread of coronavirus in 2021 will severely impact on employment within the tourism industry.”

As for the government’s tourism budget, the ministry told The Media Line that it “continues to function within the parameters of the last budget passed in Israel (2019).”

In the meantime, the ministry continues to market Israel as a healthy and desirable travel destination, while taking “the opportunity to develop and upgrade tourism infrastructure, in preparation for the re-opening of Israel’s incoming tourism industry.”