Come visit Israel – our doors are open - opinion

Tourism has always played a significant role in Israel. In 2019, 4.5 million tourists came to the country – the largest number ever.

 Tour guide JEREMY LANGE at work. (photo credit: JEREMY LANGE)
Tour guide JEREMY LANGE at work.
(photo credit: JEREMY LANGE)

Israel is where tourists flock for all sorts of reasons.

Not only do people come from far and wide to relax on its sun-drenched beaches, many also come to marvel at the ancient holy sites and to celebrate important events, such as weddings and bar mitzvahs.

Accordingly, tourism has always played a significant role in Israel. In 2019, 4.5 million tourists came to the country – the largest number ever.

That all changed overnight when Israel closed its doors to tourists as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, leaving many who rely on tourism to put food on the table struggling.

Some had no option than to pursue alternative careers as the pandemic took hold, cruelly stripping them of their livelihoods, while others, who managed to ride out the storm, are now picking up the pieces and carrying on where they left off. Tour guide Jeremy Lange and event planner Karen Tsafrir, who made aliyah decades ago from London, are two such people.

 Christian tourism returned to Israel over the Easter holiday (credit: screenshot) Christian tourism returned to Israel over the Easter holiday (credit: screenshot)

Jeremy gave up a long, successful career in hi-tech in 2017, in order, “to do something I love,” he said. In his case, the dream was to become a tour guide, showing people around his beloved Israel – something he’d always fancied.

Having completed the two-year tour guiding course at Wingate in 2019, he was looking forward to a new, exciting career. And then COVID-19 hit and the timing couldn’t have been worse.

Not only had he given up a well-paid job, but he’d also paid around 25,000 shekels in course fees. Additionally, unlike others in his position, he didn’t qualify for government benefits, although he still received a small salary from his job as a biking instructor with Etgarim, a nonprofit organization that provides sporting activities for disabled children. As you’d expect, difficult times lay ahead for him and his family.

Not one to let things get him down, however, Jeremy decided to put his new skills to good use, delivering virtual zoom tours each evening to family, friends and anyone else who wanted to join. The tours were free and soon became very popular, attracting around 30 people each night.

He did the same during the second lockdown, albeit on a smaller scale.

Post-lockdown?

IN 2021, when some semblance of normality returned, as children went back to school and other areas slowly opened up, opportunities for tour guides started to reappear. Yet, the industry was still on its knees, as the mainstay of their work, the tourists, stayed away. Jeremy picked up a bit of work here and there, but not as much as he’d have liked.

Things started to look up for him earlier this year, when finally, the gates were opened and tourists were allowed back in.

His work is now both varied and rewarding. It ranges from guiding or educating groups of school children visiting from abroad for several weeks, to accompanying small groups of professionals on day trips around Jerusalem.

He’s finally doing something he loves and is clearly good at. As one child told him at the end of his trip, “I’ve learned more from you in a week than I did in the whole of my Jewish studies.”

Another COVID-19 casualty, who, like Jeremy, relies on tourists for most of her work, is event planner Karen Tsafrir.

Unlike Jeremy, who was new to his business, Karen had been working as an event planner in Israel for many years when the pandemic struck. Through her company, Live Productions, she had been making the magic happen for couples and families from all over the world who wished to hold their celebrations or simchas in Israel, for over two decades.

Weddings, bat mitzvahs, special birthdays – for many years Karen has been the go-to woman for all the top end private and corporate events in Israel.

As the majority of her work comes from British clients, however, COVID-19 robbed her of her livelihood almost overnight. When gatherings of any kind became a thing of the past and the airport ground to a halt, so did her business.

Bookings canceled

ONE BY one, all of her bookings were canceled, leaving her with nothing but the government benefits to which, thankfully, she was entitled. Small comfort for someone who had previously been able to command tens of thousands of shekels for her services, but as she so matter of factly put it, “it was better than nothing.”

Karen also supplemented her income with a part time job in a chiropractor’s surgery. But that wasn’t all – Karen’s motto to “think outside the box”, (something which had always set her apart as far as her events were concerned), came in very handy during this period.

Not content to sit out the pandemic at home, she saw an opportunity to branch out into the Emirates and grabbed it with both hands.

Before long, she and a friend who also worked in the industry were being hosted by a local event producer there, who, having had a similar idea, was keen to meet them both.

Through this initial meeting, Karen secured a lucrative, corporate four-day event in Abu Dhabi and Dubai, which thankfully went a long way to seeing her through to the end of that difficult period.

Like Jeremy, things are now starting to look up for Karen in Israel, as well. For her, the turning point came with the abolition of PCR tests for all tourists upon arrival at Ben Gurion Airport. Unsurprisingly, that factor alone had made people reluctant to book events in Israel, which of course had a deleterious effect on Karen’s business. Now that this hurdle has been removed and people can plan with confidence, bookings are starting to come in.

Karen does, however, doubt that things will ever be the same as they were before the pandemic. She’s noticed a shift in attitudes: people are more cautious and scared now, she says.

That said, Karen is hopeful for the future. With Israel’s doors wide open, it’s not just hers and Jeremy’s businesses that are bouncing back, but the rest of the country, too!

Visit them at jeremylangetours.com and live-productions.co.il.

The writer is a former lawyer from Manchester, England. She now lives in Netanya, where she spends most of her time writing and enjoying her new life in Israel.