Travel agent says red country list is 'stopping industry in its tracks'

Tour guides protested travel restrictions outside of Ben Gurion Airport on Monday.

A passenger at Ben Gurion Airport  (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REURERS)
A passenger at Ben Gurion Airport
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REURERS)

The tourism industry in Israel is up in arms after Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s announcement this week in which he declared that the Health Ministry would begin updating the list of “red” countries on a daily basis.

Travelers landing in Israel from these red countries, so designated for their high number of COVID cases, would be required to self-quarantine for seven days upon arrival.

The impact that this decision has made on businesses relying on travel has been significant. “It’s a myopic decision that has a devastating effect on the industry,” said travel agent Mark Feldman, CEO of Ziontours and a director of Diesenhaus. “It’s stopped our industry dead in its tracks. All of the goodwill that had been won by bringing tourism back to the country, in sending Israelis out of the country, dissipated almost immediately.”

Feldman said that the Health Ministry’s ability to change a country’s designation overnight has caused enormous logistical problems. “How do you make a plan? You buy a ticket to go to a simcha (celebratory event) in London at the end of the month, knowing that, the day before you fly your country could be declared red, and you won’t be able to go? The airline might freeze your ticket – they won’t give you a refund – the hotel won’t give you a refund, so how do you make plans?”

As a result of the decision, travel agents country-wide are losing clients left and right. “In terms of incoming tourism, we’ve lost every single group that was coming here for Christmas,” said Feldman. “I have congressional groups coming here next month; they’ve told me point blank that unless I can assure them that tourism groups will be allowed in Israel, they want to cancel now – and they’re right! Why would you book a trip if you don’t know if you’ll be allowed on a plane?”

 Independent business owners and workers from the tourism sector protest, calling for financial support from the Israeli government, outside the Ben Gurion International Airport, on December 13, 2021 (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90) Independent business owners and workers from the tourism sector protest, calling for financial support from the Israeli government, outside the Ben Gurion International Airport, on December 13, 2021 (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

“Hotels inside Israel have already started laying off workers again. They were hoping to have a Christmas miracle; that didn’t come. They don’t see any reason to keep workers employed for the next month, and longer, because nobody knows what will happen,” said Feldman “There is no confidence in the Israeli government.”

Feldman presented what he sees as the solution to the dilemma: “The ideal way to resolve this is to go back to what almost every country in the world does: they require tests, before and after flights. That’s how they ensure that their citizens are safe.” In the meantime, he said, he is lobbying with the Tourism Minister and applying “a lot of prayer and a lot of hope that sanity will be restored.”

Fellow travel agent Geoff Winston is in a similar position: many of his groups have also canceled in the midst of the uncertainty regarding future travels. Despite the large number of cancellations, he holds out hope regarding his United States-based groups. “Politics plays a pretty large role in who’s red and who’s green. I’m not scared that America is going to turn red.”

He suggested that Israel and the United States’ more intimate relationship may act as something of a political safeguard against the strictest travel restrictions; a firm Israeli declaration that the US is a red country might harm relations – even if that declaration is merely on a state-by-state basis. “There are surely centers in the United States that are more problematic, and Israel hasn’t declared those states as problematic.”

While the industry may be suffering as a whole, on a personal level, Winston has found a way to make ends meet: “I’ve been doing a lot less work as an agent. I’ve been working more in local tourism, guiding local groups in Hebrew.”

While this isn’t a severe challenge for him specifically due to his bilingualism, he knows that others may not be able to pivot so easily. “There are a lot of tour guides out there who don’t have that ability.”

On Monday, tour guides and other members of the industry staged a protest at Ben-Gurion Airport, crowding the way to Terminal 3 and causing logistical issues for fliers. The demonstration was held in response to the government’s decision, coupled with a comment from Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who, during a cabinet meeting on Sunday, said: “As for travel agents and tour guides, it should be said: Start changing professions.”

Following the demonstration, Liberman acknowledged that his wording “could have been more successful, but the numbers are undeniable.”