Jerusalem's international marathon is back - did tourism come, too?

Dust off your running shoes. The city’s first international marathon since 2019 is back – and with it, a hopeful return to tourism

 Simpler times during the 2019 Jerusalem Marathon (photo credit: FLASH90)
Simpler times during the 2019 Jerusalem Marathon
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Often, when I go for my evening run through the streets of Jerusalem, my Nike running app feeds me motivational messages. “Every starting line is a new beginning,” my virtual coach tells me. “We’re talking about running, but we are also talking about everything in life.”

As Jerusalem laces up for its first international marathon since 2019, there is a sense – or a hope, at least – that this starting line represents a fresh start, the beginning of the end of a long and difficult period when the coronavirus pandemic closed down the city’s favorite cultural institutions and kept foreign tourists out.

As one of the capital’s largest and best-known events of recent years, the Jerusalem Marathon can be seen as somewhat of a bellwether of the city’s cultural climate. When, in early March 2020, the city announced it was postponing the marathon, just days after Tel Aviv successfully held its annual run, the world was just starting to wake up to the fact that the coronavirus was going to disrupt our lives. At the time, it was shocking to imagine that this strange new virus could shut down such a massive event, with 35,000 runners registered from all over the world, but we soon learned to get used to the new reality.

“The Health Ministry told us two-and-a-half weeks before the run, at the peak of registration, that we had to cancel it,” recalled Itzik Korenfine, head of the municipality’s sports division. “All of the gates and installations were already in place, but we had no choice.”

At the time, the race was postponed, not canceled, and was rescheduled for November 2020 – but that, too, was canceled. “We understood after a few months that it wasn’t going to happen then either, so we again pushed it back to March [2021], when the marathon usually takes place,” Korenfine said. “There were a lot of people who had registered for the 2020 marathon and kept their reservation in anticipation of that run. People who requested refunds were of course given their money back, but many wanted to wait for the next one.”

 Empty city: About 30% of Jerusalem's economy is touched in some way by the tourism market (credit: FLASH90) Empty city: About 30% of Jerusalem's economy is touched in some way by the tourism market (credit: FLASH90)

The March run was also canceled, and when the race was rescheduled for October 29, few people were optimistic that it would finally take place. Registration was extremely slow in the beginning, but as the date of the race got nearer, interest started to rise quickly.

“Normally, we offer early and regular registration options, and we are usually at full capacity long before we planned to close registration,” Korenfine said. “For this run, people wanted to wait until they knew whether it would really happen and what the rules would be. We decided to close registration much later than usual, and we’ve seen something unusual. Less than a week before the marathon, we are still getting 700 to 1,000 new registrations a day. As of Monday, we are at 16,000 registered runners, and we hope that number will continue to grow by a good deal over the coming days. This has exceeded all of our expectations.”

Since Israel is still inaccessible for most foreign tourists due to current restrictions, this international marathon will be almost exclusively Israeli. Just 700 runners registered with a foreign passport, Korenfine noted.

“Of those, many are probably foreign workers or students living here,” Korenfine said. “We aren’t bringing any of the professional runners from abroad that usually come. This year is an opportunity for Israelis to dominate the show.”

The marathon will follow Israel’s latest coronavirus regulations. Runners will be required to show their Green Pass to enter Sacher Park. A mask will be required to enter the park, although runners can take it off once inside, Korenfine said. Starting times have been adjusted so that no more than 5,000 will congregate together in one place. 

“People need to take responsibility to get tested before the run if they don’t have the Green Pass,” Korenfine noted. “Come with a sense of responsibility, and a lot of energy.”

THE FACT THAT the run is happening at all is a victory for the municipality and the marathon’s organizers, and is a show of confidence that Israel, seen by many as a world leader in the fight against COVID, can reopen to the world.

“The return of the marathon excites and thrills us all,” Mayor Moshe Lion said in a statement. “It is without a doubt the biggest sporting event to be held after a prolonged period of waiting and recuperating.”

This Monday, November 1, just three days after the marathon, Israel plans to allow vaccinated and recovered tourists into the country for the first time since the beginning of the pandemic. Plummeting daily infection numbers and rising vaccination rates are allowing Israelis to wonder if the Jewish state could be finally approaching the light at the end of the tunnel. 

“We’re holding our breath now,” said Deputy Mayor Fleur Hassan-Nahoum. “The past few years have been extremely difficult.”

Hassan-Nahoum has worked closely with Jerusalem’s businesses, so she understands the challenges deeply. “Ultimately, about 80% of Jerusalem’s tourism is international, and the closures of the past two years have hit us very badly,” she said. “It has affected the city in ways that you can’t imagine. About 30% of the city’s economy is touched in some way by the tourism market, so you can’t isolate how much a particular cafe was or wasn’t hurt by the loss of tourists.”

Veteran shop owners like Shmuel Katan, who runs the Iran Bazaar souvenir shop on the Ben-Yehuda shopping strip, say the pandemic was the hardest thing they had ever experienced. “We have been open here since 1957, and we have endured terrorist attacks and suicide bombers, but never anything like this,” Katan said earlier this summer. “Eighty percent of our business is tourists. We can’t survive without them.”

Hassan-Nahoum said that the city did as much as it possibly could to bolster local tourism during the difficult times. “We worked on this from every possible angle, and tried things that have never been done,” she said. “I created a municipal committee for tourism to help small businesses in the fields that were struggling. We ran large campaigns to encourage local tourism, trying to position Jerusalem as an exotic location with unfamiliar cultures within Israel. We made deals with different workers’ unions to organize day trips and overnight visits. We provided vouchers for free entry to tourist sites, and discounts to encourage people to stay more than one night in a hotel.”

Those efforts paid off, Hassan-Nahoum reported. “The hotels were at 70% occupancy on average during the weekends. During the week, we held some very interesting activities to encourage people to come. We had cultural festivals, we had a chess and backgammon international competition, the wine festival, activities in the Tower of David Museum and the Ben-Hinnom Valley. There was so much happening. Jerusalem really is the cultural capital of the country.”

IT HAS BEEN a strange year for everyone, including the dozens of nonprofit organizations that normally use the marathon as an opportunity for raising funds and building their donor bases.

“Fundraising this year is much different than it has been in other years,” said Robbie Sassoon, director of Crossroads Jerusalem, a nonprofit that works with at-risk English-speaking teens in the city. “This year, our team has about 100 people running, about a third to a half less than usual.”

A number of factors have made it difficult for all nonprofits to mobilize fundraising teams this year, Sassoon said. “People in Jerusalem generally associate the marathon with March, and they haven’t made the switch in their heads that it is happening now,” he explained. “There is also the fact that people weren’t totally convinced the race would happen, and the fears many still have of going out in big crowds.”

“It took our family a long time to decide if we were going to run,” added Robin Zalben, a Jerusalemite who has run with Crossroads in the past. “I’m not sure what to expect with the weather, and our kids who aren’t vaccinated will need to get tested before race day. In the end, we decided to do it, but only when we got an email from Crossroads telling us that the deadline was here.”

But perhaps the biggest challenge has been the lack of time to prepare. “A lot of our usual runners are people studying here for their gap year at the yeshivot and seminaries. But the school year just started, and Sukkot just ended last month, so we have not had much time to engage with them.”

In past years, Crossroads would organize a community night run in December that helped it reach many new donors and team members, but that hasn’t happened this year. “That night run, which we would do in conjunction with the Janglo online community, was an important part of our fundraising strategy, and was also really important for our staff and community to come together as a team. This year, we don’t have that.”

In general, Sassoon noted, the pandemic has been a challenging time for most nonprofits. “Many donors were affected by the situation, and people gave less for a lot of different financial reasons,” he said. “Some people lost work, and others decided to focus more on giving to medical organizations. We at Crossroads have been on the front lines of the crisis, with a lot more teens experiencing serious mental health issues. We may not be seen the same way as, for example, United Hatzalah or nurses in the hospitals, but our work is definitely saving lives.”

ISRAEL’S TRAVEL regulations also pose challenges for overseas organizations. Run For Zion is a program that was launched in 2015 to bring groups of Christian pilgrims to run the Jerusalem Marathon, offering a unique way for them to connect to the Holy Land. Partnering with churches and other ministries throughout the US, the group was set to welcome its largest group ever in 2020 before the run was canceled.

“We had two buses ready to go,” recalled Jonathan Feldstein, president of Run for Zion and Genesis 123, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between Jews and Christians with Israel. “It was disappointing.”

This year, with his community unable to visit, Feldstein is organizing virtual marathons where participants can connect from home. Virtual runners raising money from their friends and family can run or walk a 5K, 10K, or a half or full marathon, receive customized running gear and awards, and send blessings to Israel from their hometowns.

The organization will also be live-streaming the entire marathon, with commentary and live interviews, as a further way to connect. Individuals can watch at home, through participating ministries, or through a partnership with Jerusalem’s Friends of Zion Museum.

“Virtual marathons are a real thing,” Feldstein said. “Usually, when you sign up for one, you pay and you get a shirt and that’s it. We are offering a unique way for people to connect, get prizes based on how much you donate, and get access to exclusive virtual 3D tours of Jerusalem we’ll be creating over the coming months. We are the first people ever to do a live broadcast from the marathon worldwide like this.”

For the future, Feldstein is also planning to organize local community runs in different communities to coincide with the Jerusalem run. “We hope to have something in the Philippines among several ministries in the spring, with the possibility that the small Jewish community there will join as well. Hopefully, we will also have something in Charlotte, North Carolina. People are excited to connect with Jerusalem.”

AS ISRAEL prepares to welcome tourists back, Jerusalem’s hotels are prepared for an influx of tourists, but unsure how many will actually come.

“We reopened the hotel completely after the lockdown in March,” said Inbal Hotel CEO Rony Timsit. “We brought back all of our workers and hired more. The hotel was full over the summer and Sukkot, and we are operating at full capacity for our guests. Our pool, spa and restaurants are open. I don’t believe in operating a hotel with partial services.”

The pandemic has been somewhat of a roller-coaster for hotels like Inbal. “We were closed by government order for a long time,” Timsit said. “We reopened in the summer of 2020, but then we had to close again for the holidays and the winter, and we finally reopened before Passover. After such a long period without guests, the summer was very good for business, even though it was mostly Israelis staying in Israel and very few overseas tourists. We are full over the weekends, and we have young and older couples coming in the middle of the week, as well as some tour groups that got permits to come.”

That being said, Timsit believes the coming period is critical for the hotel industry. “We need to have a period of strong tourism now. If not, some hotels will think again about closing.

“There is a lot of uncertainty now,” he continued. “People are interested in coming, but they don’t know whether they can bring kids, how many vaccines they have to have, what forms they need. People are booking for the end of December, but they don’t know if they’ll be able to bring their kids yet. There is a feeling that everything can change at any time. There is fear that if the government decides to require PCR tests again after three days, or limits the number of people who can be in the airport, it would kill all tourism.”

That uncertainty threatens Israel’s tourism sector for the long term, Timsit added. “Large international travel companies are booking tours for the coming year without Israel on the list,” he said. “You see tour groups to Jordan and Egypt, but not Israel, because we have given a sense that we are too risky. So many people wanting to visit have been turned away, insulted. It has been a huge scandal. I’m worried that it will take a long time for Israel to rebuild its reputation, just like it took years for people to come back after terror attacks.”

The Mamilla and David Citadel hotels are also fully operational and ready for tourists, said Katerina Brokhes, vice president of sales and marketing at Mamilla and David Citadel.

“We have a lot of families coming after November 1, especially from Europe, and many inquiries about the upcoming Christmas season,” she said. “I’m very positive that if the government makes the right decisions, tourists will come back.”

Brokhes is optimistic that the challenges of the past year may position the hotels for greater market strength in the future.

“Our expertise has always been incoming tourism, not the local market,” she said. “We had to pivot strongly during the past year and think about how we could penetrate the local market better. We built a beautiful new play facility for kids, and created new cultural programming, new culinary options and a mix of activities in both hotels to add to our high-quality products and amenities. These will help make us stronger even after corona is over.”

Meanwhile, Hassan-Nahoum believes the prolonged period in which travelers couldn’t visit Israel has led to an overflow of pent-up demand.

“I’ve had calls from Jewish communities and Christian communities from all over the world,” she revealed. “As the co-founder of the UAE-Israel Business Council, I’m also very involved with the United Arab Emirates, where we are preparing the ground for a new type of tourism – a Muslim pilgrimage to Jerusalem. We have really exciting conferences planned over the next year-and-a-half, and we’re just praying that it will work out.”

Now, Hassan-Nahoum said, the city is praying that the reopening of the skies in November holds. “We just need the protocols in place for people to come in.

“We are the last country in the world to open up, and it’s about time.”