Tourism Minister Stas Meseznikov called on Thursday for a “comprehensive and perceptual” reform in the way Israel treats foreigners entering the country, saying the “degrading treatment” some foreigners receive costs Israel in friends and business.
The statements followed the publication of a story in Yediot Aharonot on Monday revealing that 300 foreign nationals were delayed at Ben-Gurion Airport every day, adding up to roughly 110,000 out of an average 2.2 million visitors a year. The vast majority of the people are released, some after several hours of interviews and background checks, while 1,600 are refused entry completely and sent back to their countries of origin.
According to the report, 70 percent of those delayed are held up for security purposes by the police or the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), and the rest are detained by immigration authorities.
D., a former customs official at Ben-Gurion, said airport employees were used to seeing passengers leave the airport hours after their planes had landed.
“It happens so often that you get used to it. People are delayed because their name raised a red flag on some list, or they fit the profile of someone who is wanted, or they are suspected of wanting to stay and work here. Sometimes they are refused entry, but most of them finish the process by passing through customs,” he said.
“It happens to everyone, even to people who come with organized groups, or VIPs who were invited by some ministry or university. Most of the people seem to understand that it’s because of security, but that doesn’t make them happy about it,” said D.
Aside from the visitors themselves, Israel’s tourism industry is hit hardest by this treatment, since many tourists are so put off by the experience that they vow never to return to the country.
The tourism minister said the treatment of foreigners at the entrance points was one of the two topics that always came up in meetings with tourism professionals and market-shapers abroad; the second was concerns over personal security.
“Shortly after arriving, they see for themselves that things are safe, but the bad impression upon arrival is something that lasts forever, costing the economy millions in lost income and thousands of jobs,” said Meseznikov.
“Without a comprehensive and conceptual reform in the way we greet foreign visitors, without a change in how we welcome our friends at the entrance points, we will not be able to improve the tourism reality in this country,” he said.
Ami Etgar, director-general of the Incoming Tour Operators Association, said the treatment of incoming tourists was a constant challenge for the industry.
“We realize that the inspections are necessary for security reasons, but the way they are conducted is wrong and inappropriate,” he said.
“There are cases in which visitors are spoken to rudely. There are cases in which people are made to wait for hours to be inspected. There are cases in which people are singled out from a group for unknown reasons. It all looks and feels bad,” continued Etgar.
“This is something that we constantly bring up in meeting with Israel Airports Authority officials, and we know that employees receive training on how to handle foreign visitors, but we don’t really see a change, and many tourists still leave feeling bad about the experience, which may tarnish their whole visit,” Etgar said.
The severity of the problem has come to the attention of the Prime Minister’s Office and the Foreign Ministry, which have already held a discussion on how to remedy the situation.
“We have received occasional complaints from businessmen, our Christian friends and VIPs about their treatment at Ben-Gurion Airport,” said Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon’s spokesman, adding that Ayalon would be “convening an inter-ministerial meeting at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs with representatives from many ministries and other agencies, including the Population, Immigration and Borders Authority and the Shin Bet.”
Ayalon said Thursday that “these complaints are a real concern. We need
to find a way to maintain our internationally recognized security
measures while treating our guests with respect and dignity.”
He continued, “We’d like to streamline the way our security measures
are carried out. One way to do this is to receive advance notice of any
VIPs who wish to enter the country. However, if someone is considered
suspicious and requires further security measures, then they should
still be treated with respect and have these measures expedited as much
Possible solutions under consideration include designing a special VIP
route for senior business executives, state guests and diplomats;
setting up a ready room to house all the relevant authorities in a
single place; improving communications between the various authorities;
upgrading the waiting and inspection rooms; and posting a Foreign
Ministry representative at the airport at all times.