COVID-19: How can Israel safely open its doors to tourists?

TRAVEL ADVISER: Looking at the flawed government policy and how it can be fixed.

A GROUP OF French tourists and their guide in Jerusalem’s Old City this week. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
A GROUP OF French tourists and their guide in Jerusalem’s Old City this week.

Color me tickled pink; the sounds of foreign languages are once again echoing on the sidewalks of downtown Jerusalem. The beaches in Tel Aviv are now filled with chiseled men and a bevy of beauties. Tourist buses are bustling to find a parking space inside the Old City of Jerusalem, and the hotels are bursting at the seams.

Oh, the sights I yearn to see. Sadly, everything I’ve described has yet to take place. Finally, after 19 months of needing to plead one’s case to the Israeli authorities, the skies were meant to be open. Along with the first rain of the fall season, November 1 was scheduled to be a magical day.

Reality bites, though. While the Tourism Ministry announced with undisguised glee that tourists can enjoy everything Israel can offer, few have been allowed in, and planning for the future remains as murky as ever. The newest form, which travelers were obligated to fill out prior to boarding a plane, was not available at the outset. When it was finally released, there was a bug preventing the tourist from upload the vaccination certificate.

The facts on who can enter have been well documented, starting with the baseline:

One must have been vaccinated with a vaccine approved by the World Health Organization. Pretty simple, correct? Not vaccinated, can’t enter Israel.

Jerusalem resident Klara Brieff is seen getting the third COVID-19 vaccine at a Meuhedet clinic, on August 1, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)Jerusalem resident Klara Brieff is seen getting the third COVID-19 vaccine at a Meuhedet clinic, on August 1, 2021. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

OK, so if you’ve recovered from COVID-19 within the last six months, you can enter the Land of Milk and Honey.

The devil is in the details, though. For those vaccines that have been approved, you must have received two shots or a booster within the last 180 days.

Once more, even if you had your second shot but can’t get the booster, and it was more than 180 days, you’re not coming to Israel.

What about children who aren’t vaccinated? Not eligible.

Pause for a moment to understand the new US policy taking effect Monday, November 8, which applies to all non-US citizens and to non-US immigrants.

The United States requires the following:

1. You must be fully vaccinated to travel to the United States by plane if you are a non-US citizen, non-US immigrant (not a US citizen, US national, lawful permanent resident, or traveling to the United States on an immigrant visa). Only limited exceptions apply.

2. You are required to show a negative COVID-19 test result or documentation of recovery from COVID-19 when you travel to the United States by air. The timing of this test depends on your vaccination status and age.

Like our potential tourists, before boarding a flight to the United States, you are required to show one of the following:

If you are fully vaccinated: proof of vaccination and a negative COVID-19 test result taken no more than three days before travel.

If you are not fully vaccinated: a negative COVID-19 test result taken no more than one day before travel.

However, the United States has exceptions that Israel’s Health Ministry refuses to include:

If you are not fully vaccinated against COVID-19, you will not be allowed to board a flight to the United States, unless you meet the criteria for an exception under the Proclamation and CDC’s Order.

Categories of noncitizen nonimmigrants that meet the criteria for an exception under the Proclamation and CDC’s Order include:

• Persons on diplomatic or official foreign government travel

• Children under 18 years of age

• Persons with documented medical contraindications to receiving a COVID-19 vaccine

• Participants in certain COVID-19 vaccine trials

• Persons issued a humanitarian or emergency exception

• Persons with valid visas who are citizens of a foreign country with limited COVID-19 vaccine availability

• Members of the US Armed Forces or their spouses or children (under 18 years of age)

Yes, Israeli children can fly to the United States, provided they do a PCR test prior to the flight. American children do not have that option to fly to Israel. They are simply not allowed into the country.

Take Dr. H., presently living in the US with his wife and newborn infant. His brother is getting married here next month. The family is gathering from around the world for the simha, and he reserved his ticket months ago. Will he be able to show off his newborn at the wedding? My guess is he’ll need to find someone well connected to get into Israel, or attend it via Zoom.

A group of US congressmen are coming to Israel later this month; they have no problems with our Foreign Ministry, which will let them in. It’s their spouses and staffers who, while all vaccinated, have not been able to get a booster, and fall outside the 180-day range. Forget the fact that rooms have been reserved at a five-star hotel in Tel Aviv. Forget about the security issues that have kept them busy the last few months. They still do not know if they will be allowed to board the plane.

I want stringent procedures; the health of our citizens must be paramount in letting tourists into the country. Our new policy already determines they must get a PCR test within 72 hours of boarding the plane to Israel; they must also do a PCR test when they land at Ben-Gurion Airport and stay in quarantine until they get their results. Why, then, the draconian requirement that no unvaccinated children or adults can come into Israel?

Just last week a group of Israelis living here reserved 70 rooms for Hanukkah at the Gai Beach Hotel in Tiberias. The hotel is newly renovated, with a water park that is considered one of the best in Israel. Thirty-five of the rooms were for Israelis living here, 35 for family members living in the US.

The sales manager is apoplectic when it turned out that every one of those families from the US with small children will not be allowed in. She can’t take a cancellation fee, as it’s our own government that is refusing the tourists. She is asking everyone she knows whether somehow the policy will change.

Kevin has two groups of college-age students due to arrive in December and January during the university break. Thousands of dollars have been spent on locking down flights, reserving hotels, ordering buses, and hiring tour guides. Unfortunately, if they cannot find a booster shot in time, the groups will have to cancel.

I’ve seen the emotional toll it’s taken on tour guides; hotel sales managers come to our office bemoaning their inability to plan ahead. Want to plan a trip for Passover or Easter in the Holy Land? Forget about it. Even those who got boosters in August will be beyond the 180-day time limit set by our government.

How much longer can we make the hotels stay on the sidelines, focusing all their efforts on the local market?

THE TOURISM Ministry has decided to throw caution to the wind and launch a global inbound tourism campaign.

After about 20 months of paralysis in incoming tourism, a professional delegation from the ministry went to the United States to start the ministry’s marketing system and accelerate American and Christian tourism to Israel. The professional team, headed by CEO Amir Halevi, prepared for the opening of the skies and workshops with teams from the firm’s representations in the United States.

The tour includes meetings with airlines operating in the United States, including the management of El Al in New York and Delta Airlines in Atlanta, a meeting with tourism wholesalers from various sectors, clerics, media and PR and strategic consultants.

“We have been awaiting this moment, to bring back international travelers into our country, for a very long time now,” Tourist Minister Yoel Razvozov said in a statement. “We’re ecstatic to share our country with everyone once again, and I’m proud to be working closely with our Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, among other ministers within the country, to ensure a thoughtful, safe return to tourism.”

I applaud our Tourism Ministry’s initiative, but meeting with all these industry leaders will be far more challenging, as they must explain the limitations on those who can enter.

Worse, every tourist must commit to staying in quarantine up to 24 hours or until the results of their test come in. Israeli hotel chains have already denounced this requirement and are not accepting groups who first must quarantine. They do not wish to create a separate dining room for these groups; individuals arriving will be on the honor system.

It is a pity they don’t speak to the heads of foreign airlines based in Israel. They cannot afford to go public with their disdain that the regulations will alleviate some of their concerns, but in the overall picture it is simply not enough. One airline head begged that Ben-Gurion initiate a rapid COVID-19 test, thus alleviating the requirement of a potential 24-hour quarantine. The technology exists to install a rapid COVID-19 test whose results can be provided in a few hours.

The head of one of the largest low-cost carriers flying into Israel expressed deep scorn at his inability to promote Israel to the leisure clientele that primarily populates his airline. He has been operating in Israel for only two years and has no concept of how Israeli bureaucracy can mess up something so vitally important to the economy.

Having been deluged with emails and phone calls from potential tourists unable to grasp the true meaning of the policies, they are reluctantly unwilling to be fodder for our Health Ministry officials.

We have a golden opportunity to open up our borders, welcome in the tourists, bring succor to those unemployed tour guides; and after months of deliberations, the choices we’ve made are simply erroneous in theory and burdensome to implement.

We’re on the right path; we just need those overworked clerks to take it step-by-step and change the draconian conditions of the policy. To err is human, to amend is divine.

Sometimes, the hardest thing is to admit when you are wrong.

The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem, and a director at Diesenhaus. For questions and comments, email him at [email protected]