After COVID-19, will Israeli tourism recover or relapse in 2021?

TOURISM AFFAIRS: Israelis would rather visit Dubai or the Seychelles than pay similar amounts in resorts that cannot even offer a decent meal, to say nothing of the vaunted Israeli breakfast.

WILL THE market in Jerusalem’s Old City fill up again? (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
WILL THE market in Jerusalem’s Old City fill up again?
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
We all know the story of the Hanukkah miracle: While Jews celebrated their victory over a despotic king, a small quantity of oil to light the Temple’s menorah lasted eight days.
Sadly, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has killed millions and destroyed economies, may have played a part in politics, but the effects in the tourism industry will resonate far more than eight days or eight months. It will take a very long time until what we had taken for granted is renewed.
When will tourists populate our shores? When will the incessant chatter of American tourists be heard in downtown Jerusalem? When will complaints come in of shoddy service at hotels or of being overcharged by a cabbie whose meter mysteriously stopped working the moment a tourist entered his car?
As we close the books on 2020, figures will show that international tourism fell by 80%. Domestic tourism has resumed in Israel at the Dead Sea and in Eilat with a less than stellar start. The weekends may have a decent number of Israelis, but during the week the hotels are near empty.
Israelis would rather visit Dubai or the Seychelles than pay similar amounts in resorts that cannot even offer a decent meal, to say nothing of the vaunted Israeli breakfast. Far more Israelis would prefer the presumed safety of an Airbnb.
The survival of businesses throughout the tourism ecosystem is at risk, and to date an impotent Israeli government has done very little to restore confidence that 2021 will see a robust recovery.
The world is in a countdown mode for a vaccine; politicians trumpet the vaccine’s imminent arrival as fervently as basketball fans believe that the Washington Wizards will win the NBA title in 2021, which they will not. Daily news flashes report about one company’s vaccine and how it will be distributed. One can almost envision in Times Square a magical ball that will drop when distribution begins.
A vaccine will not bring tourists back to Israel. It will not see airlines adding capacity as tourists conclude that in 2021 everything is copacetic. Let us start with a dose of reality: many people will not take the vaccine initially or ever. Anti-vaxxers are real, and while many scientists brush off their beliefs as nonsense, they do exist.
Reality check: airlines today cannot force anyone to wear a mask when flying. Yes, they can pull you off the plane while it’s still on the ground, but there is no domestic or international law stating you must wear a mask.
This is not the same a lighting a cigarette in the plane’s lavatory. Light up at 30,000 feet, and you will be met by policemen when you disembark. But pulling your mask off will result in the air stewards telling you to put it on, but sadly they have no way to enforce it. Too many travelers have reported that after an hour in the air, many passengers remove their mask. Personally, I would suggest locking them in a lavatory until the plane does land.
Which means even when a vaccine is widely distributed, no airline can ensure that passengers have taken it, nor is there any way this can be proved. Which is why industry leaders have been cajoling governments and airlines to make a COVID-19 test and a negative result a precursor to boarding a plane.
If you are planning to travel internationally, odds are that you are going to need to pack a negative COVID test. As countries begin to reopen to tourists, they want to ensure that visitors are not bringing the virus with them. That is why nearly every country currently open requires a recent negative test.
Not Israel, of course; but then Israel is not letting tourists into the country. Not the US either, as its government finds it easier to decide which tourists can fly in, such as Israelis, and which cannot.
The solution? Offer passengers an easy and convenient preflight testing option. That way, flyers know that they have access to a reliable test, and airlines can stimulate some demand.
United Airlines has been in the forefront of demanding that all passengers on selected routes must have a negative COVID-19 test.
United started on its flights from Newark to London, and has now extended its requirement to flights from Houston to Latin America and the Caribbean.
News flash: Orit Farkash-Hacohen, trained as a lawyer and of late Israel’s tourism minister, has yet to comprehend that this model could work for Israel. Today our skies remain closed to almost all incoming tourism.
Would it not be magical if our tourism minister were to ask United Airlines to add Israel to its list of destinations that require a COVID-19 test, and simultaneously open our borders to those tourists? And maybe, Ms. Minister, you could stipulate that all airlines – from El Al to BA to flydubai – make it part of their protocol? Linkage could be made that any tourists coming to Israel on those airlines would be allowed into the country.
As airlines and airports start competing on preflight testing, it is clear that this optional customer convenience is well on its way to becoming part of the new normal – and perhaps the future of travel. Except, of course, in Israel, where the subject stays below the radar.
There have been many reports speculating about how accurate these tests are; it’s why our Health Ministry has not acquiesced to the Knesset corona committee’s request to implement such testing. It is why the newly inaugurated Check 2 Fly lab at Ben-Gurion Airport is focused only on outgoing tourism.
Leaving aside the reliability of the test, if there are real concerns, then make a second COVID-19 test mandatory for all arriving passengers, with a short quarantine required until the results are forthcoming. It is revolting on how the Israeli government has let the tourism industry flounder when there exist real steps to prevent the spread of corona among tourists and returning Israelis.
THIS CALL to action requires key policy priorities to be adopted in 2021, starting with restoring traveler confidence and supporting tourism businesses. The experiment of the Dead Sea and Eilat has been tepid in the amount of visitors, but the fact that the malls in both regions did not capitulate to the government and opened their doors showed that our government can take positive decisions. What concerns me is if an outbreak in those hotels forces the hotels to withdraw their support, leaving the country in a perilous state.
The first quarter of 2021 will see almost no difference in tourism from the last quarter of 2020. The government has been slow to restore confidence, and the ability to provide clear information to limit uncertainty is a talent in shorty supply. If we move into election mode, our elected leaders and government clerks will take very few steps to create more resilient, sustainable tourism.
Late spring, though, is a different story. While Passover and Easter are already written off in the tourism industry, there is hope that by combining COVID-19 tests with a vaccination disseminated among those who desire, we will see a burst of good news.
Looking ahead, the measures put in place today will shape tourism of 2021. Hotels by late spring will be open; they will have created protocols on testing both their workers and their guests.
Israeli tour guides accustomed to traveling abroad with their flock have already judiciously rebranded themselves as masters of travel inside Israel. Facebook abounds with these new experts marketing their skills to people who will first step foot in the Dead Sea before venturing to the great beyond.
Domestic tourism is already providing a much needed boost to help sustain many tourism destinations and businesses, and will continue to be a key driver of recovery in 2021.
Safety and hygiene remain the biggest stumbling blocks to international travel. Even making plans for post-vaccine travel is for the brave of heart, as emotionally there is such a fear of getting on the plane that restoring that confidence will take far longer than a few months to see large numbers. Multiple reports talk of global tourism taking two to four years to recover. The self-named UNWTO Working Group of Experts reports that only the third quarter of 2021 will spell the beginning of the recovery for international tourism.
My advice is to eschew all experts; and rather than focus on the macro, adopt a micro outlook.
Hold on to your hats – Israeli welcomed 4.5 million tourists in 2019. Most of the visitors were from the United States, followed by France, Russia, Germany, and Britain. While many of you believe Israel is in the center of the world, attracting 4.5 million tourists is not that great an achievement. Yes, based on our record of wooing and repelling tourists, it’s a nice accomplishment. In real terms, bringing three million tourists to Israel in 2021 should be an achievable milestone.
And our tourism budget should focus the bulk of its marketing on those five countries. What do those tourists want? Is it the Christian tourist panting to see the Mount of Beatitudes, or the American family adamant that a bar mitzvah must happen in Israel? Do the French come for the beaches of the Mediterranean, and the Russian’s to ogle at the physique of Israeli men and women?
We need to create partnerships with those incoming operators who supported Israel in the past; we need to create partnerships with those airlines that will make their flyers feel save. We need to work with hotels, with restaurants and tourism sites where the tourists will find delight. We need to do this with our tourism bodies. Our travel agent, hotel and tour guide associations must adopt this goal of three million tourists and start today taking concrete steps to make it happen.
Government oversight will be limited; government intelligence is an oxymoron that we must sadly accept. It must be done by the tourism professionals who have lots of free time to work on this project.
Three million in 2021 must become a mantra. We must reach for the heavens and leave no stone unturned. The post-vaccine era will arrive; the question is will our plans be ready by then to be put in motion, or will we look more like an ostrich with our head buried deep in the sand?
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. With questions and comments, email him at [email protected]