When Israel’s Tourist Industry Died

What the Israeli government’s handling of Covid-19 did to the tourist sector.

In 2019, Israel, a country just slightly larger than New Jersey, hosted some 4.55 million tourists, an 11 percent increase over the previous year. The bulk of those tourists came from the United States, followed by France, Russia, Germany, and the UK. Those tourists infused nearly $7 billion into the economy. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), when considering the indirect impact that the tourism industry has on Israel’s economy, the total number of tourism-related jobs is estimated at 230,000, which represents approximately 6% of total employment.

Israel’s tourism industry has been an important source of revenue since the Jewish state’s founding in 1948. While Israel’s economy has since diversified to include other sectors such as high tech and military exports, tourism still accounts for an important source of revenue and employment. In fact, tourism is so integral to the Israeli economy that the government has dedicated a ministry to facilitate its growth. Israel’s current Minister of Tourism is a former Judo champion named Yoel Razvozov, but his bloated, tax-funded ministry is somewhat idle these days giving the public servant more time for beach-going activities.

Israel’s tourism industry came crashing to a halt in early 2020 following the infiltration of Covid-19 into the country and the government’s reaction to its introduction. The Netanyahu-led government largely barred tourists from entering and this policy continues to remain in effect despite a new governing coalition and a nation-wide vaccination program.

In December 2020, Israel embarked on an aggressive campaign to vaccinate its population, largely with Pfizer’s mRNA vaccine. By June 2021, more than half of the population had received both jabs. Active Covid-19 cases dropped to about 200, down from about 80,000, and serious cases dropped to twenty, down from about 1,200 at the height of the pandemic.

In light of this seemingly encouraging news, Israel’s government announced in June that it would open its doors to individual vaccinated tourists (or those who recovered from Covid-19) commencing July, subject to a negative PCR test. However, in late June, the government, responding to the introduction of the Delta variant into the country, partially reversed course and stated that they would be delaying the opening to August. In late July, the government made a complete about-face and resumed its indefinite closure to tourists.

It should be noted that the Delta variant was introduced not by foreign tourists but by Israelis returning from abroad, who encountered lax enforcement and delayed testing at Ben Gurion Airport. The Israeli government’s decision to maintain closure to vaccinated tourists was a hyper-hysterical, overreaction that bore no relation to keeping the virus in check. Those who are vaccinated (or have recovered from Covid-19) and present with negative PCR results present virtually no risk to the public. In addition, while Israel barred entry to foreign tourists, Israeli citizens were permitted to travel abroad and return, subject to minor restrictions. Lastly, there are only approximately 600 serious cases in Israel out of a population of 9.3 million, a statistically insignificant figure, and testament, some would argue, to the vaccine’s efficacy in preventing serious illness.

The anti-tourist policies implemented by the Israeli government are nonsensical and caused immeasurable harm to Israel’s economy and to public relations efforts. Israel’s airline industry is currently on the verge of collapse with all three carriers – El Al, Arkia and Israir – posting steep losses. That translates to massive layoffs and mandatory furloughs. In fact, most of El Al’s pre-pandemic staff have either been furloughed or fired. The airlines are begging the government for another bailout or alternatively, allow tourism to once again flourish.  

The hotel industry is suffering as well. Jerusalem’s hotels are reporting an abysmal 38 percent occupancy rate. In Tel Aviv, hotels are doing marginally better recording a 50 percent occupancy rate. The Israel Hotel Association grimly noted that, “the period after the summer and the holidays will require some 270 hotels to reconsider the nature of their activities on the assumption that the severe restrictions on incoming tourism will continue.”

Tour guides who rely on foreign tourists are living off government handouts, which are due to expire. Jerusalem’s busy pedestrian walkways and marketplaces like Mamila, Ben Yehuda, and Mahane Yehuda that are normally teeming with tourists this time of year, stand eerily quiet. Small business owners, taxi drivers and restaurateurs are all feeling the pinch.

But damage to the economy is only part of the problem. Israel’s anti-tourist policies have transformed the nation into a hermit state. Israel’s rightful efforts to portray itself as an open, progressive beacon of democracy in a sea of medieval backwardness are harmed by its counterproductive policies that bar entry to tourists. Judging by past tourist surveys and the upward trend of tourism to Israel, pre-pandemic, it is fair to say that the vast majority of those 4.55 million tourists who visited Israel in 2019 walked away with favorable impressions. The Israeli government’s active presence on social media to sway public opinion is no substitute for actually visiting the country. Visitors are exposed to positive influences and witness the young nation’s achievements firsthand, despite the apparent dangers posed by outside aggressor entities lurking just beyond Israel’s borders.

Israel needs to open its borders to foreign tourists sooner rather than later. Every moment that the government delays causes further irreparable harm to Israel’s economy and public relations efforts.

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