Bringing the world to visit Israel in the middle of a pandemic

Itamar Ben David and the Israel Virtual Tourism Association offer out-of-work tour guides a chance to share their respective passions, and make some money, while exploring new markets.

A CRUSADERS-THEMED virtual tour with Itamar Ben David. The faces were altered for privacy considerations. (photo credit: Courtesy)
A CRUSADERS-THEMED virtual tour with Itamar Ben David. The faces were altered for privacy considerations.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
This Purim, tour guide Itamar Ben David took his family to Iran to visit the ancient city of Susa and marvel at the tomb of Esther and Mordechai at Hamadan. COVID-19 travel restrictions and the tense relations between Jerusalem and Tehran were not a problem. Why? The whole tour was done virtually using Google Earth images and digital tools provided by Zoom.
“Sometimes people hear the concept of Digital Tourism and they think it’s an online lecture,” Ben David told The Jerusalem Post. “What they don’t understand is that these amazing digital tools allow the traveler to experience the site in a way that is entirely different.
“True, it’s not at all like being in an ancient temple or palace in person and breathe it in and soak it through the skin – but it is a way to get a taste of it. Who knows? Maybe in the future, when you have the time or the money or borders reopen, you will reach out to the guide you met online and re-book, this time with flight tickets?”
With 14 years of experience under his belt, Ben David guided such noted people in the Holy Land as the actor Chris Noth (“Mr. Big” from Sex and the City) and Larry King.
“Like many tour guides I am a technophobe and see myself as a content creator,” he wrote in a 10-page document he shared with his peers when COVID-19 struck.
“However, if you think tourism will return to normal by summer – I believe this is a totally unrealistic expectation,” he told them in April.
As he sees it, the objection to virtual tourism is rooted in a misconception: that it comes at the expense of regular tourism.
“This is not the right way to look at it,” he explained. “First of all, there are millions of people around the world who would love to explore Israel but can’t afford to come here. Many of them reside in developing countries.
“These people are a vast, yet untapped market.”
He offered the example of how, using large screens and a good audio system, an entire church could hire a virtual tour in the footsteps of Jesus for the entire congregation.
“We also send people souvenirs by mail,” he added, offering people that physical connection to the Holy Land.
“So far we sent people spices after they took our incense trade route virtual tour and wine bottles for those who explored Israeli wine-making online.”
In theory, church goers could get water from the Sea of Galilee or the Jordan River. This is one way to create new markets by using new technologies.
“Second of all, there are lots of people who are considering visiting Israel but have other options. So why should they come here? By offering people an easy online travel experience you can show them this country is indeed worth seeing. Maybe they’ll like the guide, or see that it’s safe to come here, and pick us over other places.”
“What people need to understand is that what counts is the personal connection people feel with the guide they meet. If they meet him online and feel the experience was a good one, they will feel a lot safer booking a trip with her or him later on.”
In addition, he added, the technology enables people who are unable to travel for whatever reason – health concerns or work commitments – not just to see more of the world but also to enjoy a radically new sort of travel.
“Lets say we have a tour guide in Oman, a tour guide in Jordan, and a tour guide in the Negev,” he suggested. “With digital technology, we could offer people a unique experience to see what is the meaning of the Abraham Accords and how they relate to the Incense trade route.
“I happen to be from Yemenite-Moroccan heritage myself,” he shared, “and I would love to create a tour with one guide in Spain, another in Morocco, another in Jamaica and one here. This could be a fantastic way to explore the heritage of Sephardic Jews that would connect people to all these amazing places and stories in a brand new way.”
It would also be possible to offer people an augmented reality experience.
For example, a tourist sitting at home in Toronto could follow a tour guide in Jaffa on the footsteps of the prophet Jonah and “see” an animated whale appear as the guide shows him the modern beach of the port city.
If pre-COVID-19 tourists would visit a Skansen-type museum, in which actors in period costumes would present how the Puritans would talk and dress. The post-COVID-19 tourist might open a laptop for a unique evening experience of Sephardic heritage and enjoy an introduction to Jewish pirate of the Caribbean Moses Cohen Henriques, followed by a performance of Ladino music by a current musician.
BEN DAVID currently offers roughly 80 unique virtual tours, including one about Israeli street art, and thinks almost any tour can be tweaked to serve the needs of the client.
“It’s hard to get face to face time with people who are famous because they usually work very hard,” he said. “However even very busy people can speak to someone over the phone for 20 minutes or so.”
If your son is having a bar mitzvah during COVID-19 travel restrictions and is a hardcore fan of Iron Chef, Ben David can offer a virtual tour of Israeli food and arrange for a famous chef to talk with your family and share his passion for culinary excellence. Who knows? If things click, the chef might eventually give your son a job if he proves committed to the craft.
Ben David also offers a tour about Israeli bats with a nod to the theory COVID-19 was introduced via that species and a wink toward Batman.
“Very few people are going to pack a bag and follow the life of Theodor Herzl and visit all the cities he lived in from Paris and Vienna to Jerusalem and Istanbul,” he said, providing an example.
“Herzl is one of my personal heroes, I would love to shape a tour with guides in each city who could “take” people to important locations where events took place and then have an academic expert give a short lecture.
This is the good thing about a guided tour, it’s not just us guides who point at things and explain, people can stop us and ask questions.”
With that in mind, he co-created the Israel Virtual Tourism Association (IVTA), which currently has 46 registered guides who can offer virtual tours in a staggering variety of languages: from English to Chinese, Indonesian to Danish.
“Me and Gadi Ben Dov offered the first training course to teach tour guides how to function in the virtual world in January and we had 70 students. It was funded via the Jerusalem Entrepreneurs Tourism Hub [JETH] and their partners,” he said.
Support was granted by the Jerusalem Affairs Ministry and Heritage and the Jerusalem Development Authority.
“Now we’re in the process of opening a third course. Roughly 90 people are taking the second course as we speak.”
Ben David is sure that digital tourism is something Israel cannot ignore and is looking ahead to June 16, the International Day of Virtual Tourism, as a key date for which he must gear up. This date is significant – as it marks the day IVTA was founded.  
“We do have things we would love to solve! As I keep telling people, you must use your own photos for copyright reasons. Google Earth has an issue around copyrights and Amazon Explore has a limited range of formats to use. This is an issue we’d love to work out with these large companies, if we could only find someone there to talk with.
“The Foreign Ministry should consider speaking with us,” he concluded, “imagine all the Gulf states residents we could bring to Israel – online – right now.”