Is tourism in Israel back?

What a difference a few months make. Tour guides are busy again and with renewed hope about the summer of 2022.

 THE ‘UMBRELLA STREET’ in downtown Jerusalem is seen nearly empty. Will the streets now be filled again? (photo credit: SETH ARONSTAM)
THE ‘UMBRELLA STREET’ in downtown Jerusalem is seen nearly empty. Will the streets now be filled again?
(photo credit: SETH ARONSTAM)

Since the start of COVID, tourism in Israel, as elsewhere, has been in bad shape. It got to the point that Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman infamously said at a cabinet meeting on December 12, 2021, that, “As for travel agents and tour guides, it should be said: Start changing professions.”

The tourism industry responded with great anger, accusing the minister (and the entire government) of callously disregarding tens of thousands of families’ plight and unnecessarily restricting incoming travel far beyond what the science or other countries with similar COVID rates then suggested as reasonable.

Interestingly, while Liberman walked back the uncaring tone of his remarks, he didn’t adjust the substance. Unlike positive messages and substantial support early on in the pandemic, the message that the tourism industry received over 2021 seemed to be more like “we’re not going to help you. Forget about tourism.”

I know I did. Like many other tour guides struggling for the last couple of years, there simply was no choice. Leading groups and families around Israel – something I consider a mitzvah as well as a livelihood – was put on the backburner. Nearly every guide I know was looking for something else.

What a difference a few months make. Tour guides are busy again and with renewed hope about the summer of 2022. Is this real or just wishful thinking? Ultimately, we don’t really know, but the indications are very strong.

Are you a tour guide? Start smiling again: Summer bookings and reservations are coming in daily. Private tour guides are receiving deposits for groups and families coming over the summer. I informally consulted with many guides and found that this was the norm, not the exception.

Are you a young person looking for summer work in the tourism industry? You have your choice of jobs available. My 23-year-old son, with no experience in the field, is being inundated with offers.

Are you a hotel in Israel? Hotels are being booked quickly, and prices have gone up not down, indicating that hotels are feeling very strong about incoming numbers. In other words, it is a “seller’s” market. Israel’s hotels aren’t cheap, due to limited supply, and, now, pent-up-demand.

Do you operate an Airbnb? Chances are that after a scary first few months of the crisis, you’ve fared better than most hotels due to domestic tourism and the COVID-era fear of staying in crowded hotels. Now, the sky is the limit. Many Airbnb’s in Israel are already largely booked for the summer!

Are you planning on renting a car over the spring and summer? I would humbly suggest making that reservation soon. Rental car prices are sky-high and show no signs of returning to pre-COVID levels. Why? Rental car companies are confident the demand will continue to rise, outstripping the supply.

Importantly, this large uptick in summer plans seems to apply to all types of visitors:

Famed guide Moshe Hamburg of Your Israel tours, dealing mostly with religious Jewish tourists, reported this week that, “this Passover is the busiest I’ve ever seen. And the summer looks very, very good.”

Christian Tourism may well have one of the biggest summers in Israeli tourism history. Tour guide Daniel Bishara Sahwani explained to me that Christian tours and pilgrimages are “already back strong.” Because it is the Holy Land, many pilgrims prioritize Israel over other areas for vacation. Also, tours that were canceled in 2020 and 2021 were rescheduled for this year, in addition to the normal expected 2022 tours. Will the Holy Land be overwhelmed? No one knows but as of now, Daniel and his fellow Christian guides are busy and getting busier.

What about Birthright? I consulted with friends who work with two of the largest Birthright Trip Organizers Rabbi Shmuel Tiechtel of Chabad from Arizona State University and Rebbetzin Sarah Deitsch from the Chabad of Ohio State University both responded that registration for their Mayanot Birthright trips over the summer of 2022 is sky-high, and they hear the same from other campus shluchim and shluchos. Rabbi David Felsenthal who has worked with Birthright’s Israel Free Spirit – part of the OU – explained that “we have many groups planning to come. The summer is looking very busy, not back to pre-COVID levels but a huge improvement from the past two years. Exact numbers are still uncertain but our team is back in force and preparing for large numbers.”

Rabbi Ari Gruen, trips director for Olami International and its many affiliates said, “Our main audience is Jewish students and young professionals. Right now, demand for the summer is very, very high. After amassing a backlog of people who wanted to come over the last two years but couldn’t, we are getting everything in place for a busy summer. It could very well be bigger than pre-COVID levels.”

Tourism industry: perhaps it is time to consider getting off your anti-depressants. Things are looking good for the summer of 2022!

The author is a writer, speaker and licensed tour guide.