Coronavirus: Post-pandemic tourism hopes breed excitement, skepticism

Royal Caribbean will begin cruises from Israel as a test case, while locals are bitter and skeptical of government plans

Royal Caribbean's new ship, which will sail from Israel for the first time in May. (photo credit: Courtesy)
Royal Caribbean's new ship, which will sail from Israel for the first time in May.
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Israel’s plan to reopen the country by April is generating mixed reviews within Israel’s tourism industry. While local tourism providers are skeptical, international operators are watching Israel closely as a test case for post-coronavirus travel.
On Monday, Royal Caribbean International said it plans to begin sailing from Israel for the first time in May. The global cruise line will offer Israelis with green passports a combination of three- to seven-night escapes to the Greek Isles and Cyprus, with online ticket sales beginning next Tuesday, March 9, the company said.
Royal Caribbean will be the first cruise line to offer fully vaccinated sailings, where both crew and guests above the age of 16 will be vaccinated against COVID-19, it said.
“Royal Caribbean believes this will be a profitable venture and a first test for the recovering travel industry,” a company spokesman said. “While we are not sure what the next steps will be in Europe and elsewhere, we see Israel’s vaccination success as an opportunity to offer services to a country we have had our sights on for quite some time.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu welcomed the announcement as a confirmation of Israel’s policies.
“This is an important economic, tourist and branding event for the State of Israel,” he said. “Just as we made Israel the world champion in vaccines, we will make it the world champion in economics and tourism in the post-corona era.”
However, many locals don’t share his enthusiasm.
“No one in the country’s tourism industry in the North is preparing anything ahead of the summer,” said Hagay Bareket, owner of Bareket Jeep Tours. “If tourism does come back, it will be 30 to 40 percent of what we have had in previous years. No one is investing for the future now, and it seems that the government doesn’t really know what to expect either. The past year was a nightmare, and I just hope the closure will be lifted.”
Israel’s tourism industry has been among the most battered during the coronavirus pandemic. Three lockdowns have forced countless businesses to close, and Ben-Gurion Airport has been closed since early January as the government seeks to keep coronavirus mutations out of the country.
The closure, along with other measures that are widely perceived as being unfair, unevenly enforced and disproportionately strict, has made many Israelis bitter and cynical that the government will be able to deliver on its grandiose plans.
“When I speak with tourism service providers, the sentiment is not so positive,” said Joanna Shebson, the Jerusalem deputy mayor’s senior adviser for English-speaking tourism and founder of the Fun Jerusalem tourism website. “Everyone is still in a holding pattern. Some of the hotels are planning to open up for the Passover holiday, but others are not.”
The Jerusalem Municipality is exploring a number of local events to cater to internal Israeli tourism, she said.
The main event of the spring will be a nature festival taking place over the next three weekends in the city’s parks, with workshops and activities for children on Fridays throughout the city, Shebson said, and if the festival is a success, it may be extended until the end of Passover on April 3.
“The goal is to bring families out into the open air to enjoy the beauty of Jerusalem’s nature,” she said.
However, with tourism from overseas expected to remain minimal for the near future, the city’s focus is mainly on internal tourism, Shebson said. That means the city’s souvenir shops, hotels and tour guides may have to continue suffering for longer.
“Since COVID began, I have given exactly four tours, all to people who already live in Israel,” said Joel Haber, a Jerusalem tour guide. “Three of them were tours of Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda shuk [market] I gave last August, and only one was a full-day tour to a group. That’s all the business I’ve had since last March.”
How is Haber preparing for the country’s planned reopening?
“I’ve learned over the past year that no one knows anything, so I have no expectations,” he said. “In the tour-guide forums I’m in, we always get questions from people asking when things will open, and the answer is, We just don’t know.
“There is a legitimate hope that things will reopen in April, but we have seen that things can change very quickly. As a tour guide, I don’t really need to do anything to prepare in advance. If someone calls me and wants to reserve a tour in a few weeks, we’ll book it. My focus has been on tourists from overseas. But there is local tourism now, and if a local group wants to book a tour at a reasonable rate, I’ll do it.”
Zvi Kaufman, owner of the Isravilla vacation complex in the North, is optimistic about the summer season.
“There is very strong demand that has built up after so many months when there was no place to go,” he said. “We are getting more phone calls from interested customers than we did several months ago, but we are taking a wait-and-see attitude.
“People are tighter with money now, and that is holding down prices, and the situation doesn’t seem to have any clear direction. We aren’t investing anything in advertising now, because we don’t know what will happen and because there is so much pent-up demand that there is no need to spend money on publicity now.”
One thing that has changed over the past year is people’s attitudes about following the rules,” he added. “In the beginning, customers wanted to follow the rules for coronavirus safety. Now, they see the rules as a nuisance, and a lot of the people who call ask us if they can break the rules without getting caught.”
Isravilla caters primarily to large groups, so the government’s regulations that only nuclear families can vacation together have led to extra confusion, Kaufman said.
“Over the past few months, several times when we took money for bookings, we had to refund them as a result of the rules changing on very short notice,” he said. “When a family of 40 to 50 people are planning to go away together, and you tell them a few days beforehand that you have to cancel, it is heartbreaking for everyone.”