This time of year, Israel’s hotels would normally be operating at or near one-hundred percent occupancy. However, as the Jewish holiday season approaches, a different, more somber reality emerges. Israel’s hotels, particularly those situated in cities that attract foreign tourists, remain largely vacant. In Jerusalem, the vacancy rate stands at thirty-eight percent while Tel Aviv’s hotels are doing only marginally better.
In June 2021, following a mass vaccination campaign initiated by the then Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and concomitant reduction in Covid-19 cases – only 200 active cases and 20 serious cases throughout the country – Israel announced that it would open its borders to individual vaccinated tourists or those recovered from the virus.
In light of the announcement, the industry, which had been on life support since March of 2020, suddenly awoke from its deep hibernation. Foreign tourists immediately began booking tickets and making hotel and Airbnb reservations. Tour guides, who had been subsisting off government handouts like beggars, suddenly saw a light at the end of the tunnel. Small business owners, whose businesses depended on revenue generated by tourists, were once again optimistic about the future. But alas, the optimism and good cheer proved to be premature.
In response to a sudden spike in the Delta variant, introduced into the country by unvaccinated Israelis who traveled overseas and bypassed lax airport controls at Ben Gurion International Airport, the government, now led by Prime Minister Nafatali Bennett, performed a complete about-face. The ban on individual foreign tourists currently remains in effect on an indefinite basis. The government’s zigzag sparked mass cancelations of hotel, Airbnb and airline reservations.
In addition to the economic damage caused by the ban – an estimated $7 billion in lost revenue – the closure leaves the so-called “start-up nation” in competition with nations like Afghanistan for least amount of foreign tourists; an unenviable dubious distinction to say the least.
Ironically, Israel still maintains a tax-funded minister of tourism – with a bloated staff and budget – for a country devoid of tourists. Heading this ministry is Yoel Razvozov, who, judging by his profile, has virtually no experience in tourist matters. While hundreds of thousands of Israeli workers have been fired, furloughed or otherwise negatively impacted by the tourist ban, Razvozov continues to collect a government paycheck and have access to an expense account. Aside from posting selfies on social media, Razvozov and his ministry have little to busy themselves with these days.
As perceptively noted by author and tour guide Tuvia Book, Italy, Greece and Cyprus have all figured out ways to safely bring tourists into their respective countries. But Israel, the nation that figured out how to make arid land bloom, that pioneered anti-missile defense shields and cyber technology and otherwise introduced the world to a host of wondrous, innovative technological achievements, cannot figure out how to do it.
Aside from lost revenue and jobs, Israel’s public relations efforts have suffered as well. Israel routinely and correctly complains that it is treated unfairly and portrayed negatively by some establishment media outlets. Some of this negative propaganda can be countered by social media but there is no substitute for actual visits to Israel so that the tourist can be exposed to positive influences and otherwise witness Israel’s charm and achievements, first-hand. As past surveys have demonstrated, the vast majority of tourists who visit Israel tend to leave with favorable impressions of the country.
Israeli tour guides, who are required to undergo a grueling two-year licensing course overseen by the Ministry of Tourism, represent the first line of defense in Israel’s public relations efforts. They often possess advanced degrees in other topics related to their profession and generally do a marvelous job in explaining Israel’s history and deep-seated Jewish nexus with the land. Sadly, the Israeli government has to its detriment cast aside these invaluable individuals like discarded trash.
Israel’s government is duty-bound to maintain the health of its citizenry but that duty must be balanced against societal harms resulting from measures to contain the virus. Societal harms include devastation to the economy and the mental health effects on those impacted by Israel’s draconian anti-tourist policies. Moreover, a blanket ban on individual tourists is misguided and bears no relation to curbing the spread of the virus.
It should be noted that out of a population of 9.3 million, there are only 670 people in serious condition, a statistically insignificant amount. Additionally, the recent spike was caused by unvaccinated Israelis who encountered lax security measures at the airport, and not by foreign tourists. Finally, in June and July Israel began a pilot program whereby small organized groups of tourists could enter. During the course of the program, there was not a single recorded case of a tourist either transmitting or contracting Covid-19.
A policy allowing entry for individual vaccinated tourists or those with natural immunity in combination with PCR testing would be infinitely more sensible. These inconveniences are preferable to a blanket ban, and serve the balanced interests of all concerned.
Postscript: As of this publication, Israel announced that beginning September 19 it would once again permit entry for limited tourist groups of between five and thirty people. However, this would represent barely a fraction of Israel’s pre-pandemic tourist population as the vast majority of tourists enter as individuals and not as groups.