Despite empty skies, tourism industry isn’t falling

The Travel Adviser: Is the only hope for the incoming tourism industry a successful vaccine, or is our government intent on aiming for some type of herd immunity?

LEANING THE empty King David Hotel pool in Jerusalem and waiting for tourists.  (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
LEANING THE empty King David Hotel pool in Jerusalem and waiting for tourists.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The travel and tourism industry is arguably the largest industry in the world. It is, therefore, no surprise that its structure is quite complex, involving many components.
The pandemic, which the entire world is experiencing, has decimated the industry, and while the tsunami has not receded, the initial assessment is that only the strong will survive.
For over four months, Israel has banned almost all tourists from entering the country. With very few exceptions, no one without an Israeli passport is permitted to fly into Israel. Ben-Gurion Airport is open, and airlines are flying here, but in terms of tourism entries, we are talking about a 98% drop in numbers.
Travel professionals demonstrate and protest in front of government offices that the skies must be opened, that the economy cannot survive without tourism, but for the foreseeable future, their pleas will not be heard.
The importance of tourism to Israel cannot be exaggerated. The industry can be broken down into four main components, as follows:
1. Accommodations: hotels, hostels, ‘tzimmers’ (country guesthouses), Airbnb
Forget for a moment that for over two months they were not even able to operate. Almost every single property in Israel, small or large, closed its doors, sending its workers on unpaid leave. Lockdowns were in place throughout Israel, and the hotels became echo chambers.
Then our numbers fell, COVID-19 was tamed, and the prime minister went on television exhorting us to go out, celebrate and raise a mug of beer.
The innkeepers went to work disinfecting and creating social distancing barriers, not for the esteemed tourists but for the Israelis. Sure, 20% of us were unemployed, but there was enough loose change to go around so that Israelis would flock to these properties.
Some have, some bit their tongues and paid the outrageous amounts asked for by these lodges. Could there be pools open? Was the famed Israeli breakfast an option? Regulations came and went, and so far, these properties are doing okay. Not great, with the bulk of their business on weekends, but tzimmers up north and Airbnb rentals in Eilat report that the summer will give them some relief from their losses.
One salient point: All the hotels that were shut down due to government edict received compensation for their losses. None, though, is getting funds for its very low occupancy.
2. Natural attractions, built attractions
Most of us have climbed Masada, either by the Snake Trail or the Roman Ramp; those of us less physically inclined have taken the cable car. None of us has a desire to experience Masada in the heat of the summer. But tourists do, Birthright groups do, bar mitzvah and family tours do. Not this year. Most of our natural parks, historical monuments and tourism sites are bereft of people, with tourists making up over 70% of the summertime visitors. Staff members have been laid off at these sites or sent on furlough.
Built attractions also make up an important part of the structure of the tourism industry. Think museums, for example, and realize that so many of their visitors hold foreign passports. Been to the Baha’i Gardens since our lockdown has ended? Traipsed along the port in Caesarea? All have been untouched by tourists in many months. Staff cutbacks in these properties went deep, but most were entry-level positions that can easily be filled when needed.
3. Tourism services
This is where the deepest human damage has been felt. Airlines, tour operators, travel agents, tour guides, conference and event organizers – almost every single operator or agency has put all their workers on furlough.
Israir recently announced it is extending the unpaid leave of its workers until the end of February 2021. Now that is a dark prognosis, but sadly it may be prophetic. El Al announced it is not flying through August; I can tell you it will not be flying in September either.
Eli Rosenberg, a 30-year-old new immigrant backed by his father’s bank account, has put in a bid of $75 million to purchase 45% of El Al. A single Boeing 787 Dreamliner, of which El Al has several, costs approximately $250m. El Al has 16 Dreamliners in its possession, so Rosenberg is stating that all of El AL is worth less than one Dreamliner!
Some tour operators and travel agencies have shifted their outlook and are focusing on the local market. Jerusalem is the most “abroad” of any Israeli city, says the Tourism Ministry’s advertisements. Do a staycation this year and travel inside Israel is their message. Some agencies have organized hospital workers on respite to go up North for two days.
Tour guides have started advertising their services for Hebrew-speakers, arranging tours of hummus in Jerusalem or graffiti tours in Tel Aviv. Whereas they were able to charge $600 a day for guiding tourists, they have lowered their rates substantially to entice the Israeli market. In reality, though, there is simply not that much of a demand for their services.
The problem is that we are deep in our second wave of COVID-19 and a sizable percentage of the population does not want to be with a large group – not in a mall, not on a bus, and not even in a hotel. Like in the time of the First Intifada, which started in 1987, many tour guides will simply change professions. Those who have a second source of income will wait it out, hoping that by next spring there will be a vaccine that is readily distributed throughout the world.
American Express and Issta, two giants in the Israeli travel industry, closed all their branches throughout the country, keeping only one physical location in Tel Aviv. Smaller travel agencies, realizing that 2020 is over in terms of tourism, went permanently out of business. Airlines, too, have decimated their staff. Why have a sales and marketing manager, when Israelis will not be flying abroad in the same numbers as 2019 for a good year? Those dismissed staff must reinvent themselves and seek work in a completely different industry. Travel agents, too, realize that the way back to full employment is months away, and are seeking other forms of employment, with very limited success.
Remember the Tel Aviv Pride in June? What about the Feast of Tabernacles in October? No doubt you have not forgotten about the Jerusalem Film Festival or the operas at Masada. All are gone; no conferences, no parades, no marches, no events. Nothing, zilch, will take place this year. Tourists will not be coming for the holidays. The Christians will not be dipping their toes in the Jordan River. The year 2020 is a lost year.
4. Ancillary services: buses and minivans, restaurants, gift shops
It is hard to fathom how so many services rely upon the tourist. Many transportation companies will go under, their vehicles repossessed by the banks that made the loans.
Restaurants and gift shops that overly relied upon the tourist have already started to close. Walk around downtown Jerusalem and Tel Aviv to see how many “For Rent” signs there are.
ISRAEL WELCOMED over 4.55 million tourists over the course of 2019, an 11% increase compared to last year, according to the Tourism Ministry. Most of the visitors were from the United States, followed by France, Russia, Germany and Britain, according to ministry data. According to ministry figures, Jerusalem was the most popular destination for overnight stays, followed by Tel Aviv, Tiberias, the Dead Sea and Eilat.
The ministry said tourism revenue in 2019 reached approximately $6.65 billion, a 55% increase from 2018.
The sky is not falling. We need government action; we need massive retraining courses for those who can no longer practice their professions. All my staff members are on unpaid leave until mid-September; the majority getting 70% of their salary. My own industry has yet to receive any government assistance, but this week the Finance Ministry said it would give us some aide. On one hand, I am very grateful for the funds; on the other hand, it does not change the hard reality: there is a new paradigm being created. We do not know how it will play out. We do not know who will survive and thrive.
Will Israel learn from Greece, a country that tests every single incoming passenger for COVID-19? If found positive, Greece puts the tourist or local in a hotel for 14 days of quarantine, paid for by the Greek government.
Is the only hope for the incoming tourism industry a successful vaccine, or is our government intent on aiming for some type of herd immunity?
However, you envisioned the tourism industry in the past, it will never return. This pandemic has changed how we travel and what we desire. Travel and tourism will be changed forever. With uncertainty and fear hanging over traveling, no one knows how quickly tourism and business travel will recover, whether we will still fly as much, and what the travel experience will look like once new health security measures are in place. One thing is certain: Until then, there will be many more canceled vacations, business trips, weekend getaways and family reunions.
My desire is that Israeli policy-makers will redesign our tourism strategies to keep down crowds, keep more money in the local economy, and enforce local regulations. Many health protocols will become permanent.
How fervently should we compete for the shrinking tourist dollar by racing to the bottom, allowing the travel industry to regulate itself, using deep discounts to fill hotels and airplanes and revive incoming tourism? These are questions that are not being asked, with little thought about the day after.
Smart travelers will trust places with good governance and health systems. They will take fewer trips and stay longer. They will see this pandemic as a forecast of what is to come from the climate crisis. They will act like responsible citizens as well as passionate travelers. Chicken Little was wrong: the sky is not falling. We will keep traveling because curiosity cannot be expunged.

The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments, email him at mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il