Shooting Israel’s tourism industry in the foot

Israel’s slow response has led to losses in the billions of dollars, and tens of thousands of jobs in the tourism industry have been wiped out.

FLIGHT ATTENDANTS in full protective gear attend the boarding of an Israir flight between Tel Aviv and Eilat (photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
FLIGHT ATTENDANTS in full protective gear attend the boarding of an Israir flight between Tel Aviv and Eilat
(photo credit: OLIVIER FITOUSSI/FLASH90)
Israel has a reputation for being an entrepreneurial nation that knows how to adapt itself to changing circumstances, but when it comes to the coronavirus pandemic and its effect on tourism, the Start-Up Nation has dropped the ball.
Israel’s response has been slow and convoluted, while countries such as Portugal, Greece and Egypt have reacted rapidly to put their industries back on their feet.
In June, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that by August, Israel’s skies would reopen to foreign tourists, but that target date has now been pushed back to October. As has been the case with much of the handling of the crisis, the government’s actions regarding the tourist industry have been marked by indecisiveness and vacillation.
Israel’s slow response has led to losses in the billions of dollars, and tens of thousands of jobs in the tourism industry have been wiped out.
In 2019, a record 4.55 million tourists came to Israel, generating over NIS 22 billion in revenues for the economy. Some 150,000 people were employed directly by the tourism industry, with 13,000 new jobs created last year alone.
Incoming tourism grew by 55% over the past three years, making the industry a significant exporter of services. According to the Knesset Research Institute, “Tourism has economic, social and political significance and impacts many sectors of the economy.”
In the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, Israel’s GDP will sink 2.6% just from the hit taken by the tourism industry.
So perhaps because tourism accounts for “just” 2.6% of GDP and “just” 3.6% of jobs lost, the Health and Finance ministries have chosen to focus on other sectors first. In my view, they are making a severe error, as those countries that have already opened their doors to tourists have scored an early goal in the race to brand themselves as destinations that are open for business, while Israel has been left lagging far behind.
Other countries have adopted a policy of “living with the coronavirus,” with some, such as Portugal, Denmark and France – and closer to home, Greece and Egypt – partially open for tourism, while others such as Brazil, the United Kingdom and Croatia are fully open for business.
On the assumption that fully opening Israel up to tourism is not possible given the current high rates of infection in the country, then Israel should open up at least partially, a policy that has been successfully implemented by several countries over the last couple of months.
Portugal, for example, has managed the coronavirus crisis from a tourism perspective by maintaining its brand presence through marketing initiatives and adopting practical tools to get tourists back to the country as quickly as possible. One is its “don’t cancel, postpone” voucher program covered by the state that allows holidaymakers to reschedule their vacations if they are affected in any way by COVID-19, including losing their jobs. And if postponement until the end of 2021 is not possible, they become eligible for a refund in 2022.
PORTUGAL IS currently open to the 22 members of the Schengen European border control-free travel area, as well as a further list of countries constantly updated, depending on infection rates in those countries.
All that is required from tourists from these countries in order to visit Portugal is to fill out a health questionnaire prior to entering the country. Tourists from other countries may enter Portugal by presenting an up-to-date negative test for COVID-19 or by taking a test once in the country and remaining in isolation at their hotel until they have received results of the test.
Once in Portugal, and equipped with a negative test result, the only requirement of tourists, just as of citizens, is to wear a mask in enclosed public spaces.
Egypt has opened its airports to international tourism while leaving land crossings shut. Tourists can enter the country, subject to filling out a standard health declaration form and presenting a negative COVID-19 test from within 72 hours before their departure, as well as reporting their mobile phone number and signing a commitment to report any change in their medical status as far as regards COVID-19.
Greece is also open to European Union members and several other countries, including Israel. This week, despite the soaring COVID-19 rates in Israel, Greece opened its borders to Israeli tourists without any quota or travel restrictions, whereas previously there had been a cap on the number of Israelis allowed into the country. All that Israelis visiting Greece have to do is to present a COVID-19 negative test from within 72 hours before their departure.
Even the cruise industry, which saw severe outbreaks that led to a global shutdown early in the pandemic, has begun to resume sailing in Europe by adopting a double-buffer testing procedure in which passengers take a rapid antigen test and then, if they test positive, a second molecular test prior to boarding. Passengers who are positive on both tests are denied boarding and refunded for all expenses. So far, several cruises have gone ahead successfully and managed to prevent any outbreaks.
It would seem, therefore, that most countries have adopted at least partial opening of their tourist industries under certain limitations and with tourists having to provide contact details.
There is no reason for Israel not to adopt similar entry procedures prior to a vaccine becoming widely available. Continuing the policy of doing nothing will lead to heavy losses and the collapse of many businesses that are dependent on tourism.
All the more so if, as demand returns, Israel is not an option on the global tourism map. If that is the case for an extended period of time, Israel will slip out of global consciousness as a popular tourist destination, and it will be extremely difficult to get back to last year’s record breaking level of 4.5 million – and growing – incoming tourists that existed prior to the outbreak of the pandemic.
By closing itself off from the world, Israel is causing its tourist industry and the people who work in it enormous damage both over the short and long term.
The writer is the founder of, and a tourism professional with many years of experience in digital and offline marketing, e-commerce, integrative media planning and public relations. His writing mainly focuses on digital trends in travel and hospitality.