Israeli travel agents pull out all the stops to get our globetrotters home

There are approximately 1,500 travel agents in Israel, and about 300 of them are members of a group on the Telegram app that provides crucial advice to help Israelis stranded abroad.

TAL HOD wears his mask in front of Havasu Waterfalls, Argentina, last week (photo credit: Courtesy)
TAL HOD wears his mask in front of Havasu Waterfalls, Argentina, last week
(photo credit: Courtesy)
For the past 40 years, Dorit Grinberg of Kfar Vradim has worked as a travel agent. She never thought of her work as a mission – until now. Since the coronavirus outbreak began in China, started to spread around the world in February, and then grew even more critical in the past two weeks, Grinberg has been working almost nonstop to bring Israeli citizens back to Israel before airlines ground to a halt and countries shut their borders.
“Panicked parents were sending me messages in the middle of the night,” Grinberg said in an interview over the telephone. “Their children are trapped in foreign countries and they desperately need my help.”
Early on Sunday morning, March 15, Tamar Hod, head of the nursing department of pediatric oncology in Rambam Hospital, called Grinberg, requesting help for her 22-year-old son, Tal, who was in Brazil. By Sunday afternoon, Tal, was boarding one of the last planes that flew out the country. Because he did not have an American visa or documents to enter Canada, Hod had to fly from Sao Paolo to Johannesburg, South Africa, and then back to Tel Aviv.
“I was so moved he made it home,” said Tamar Hod about her son, who was on a six-month trip after his three-year service in the army. “But I couldn’t hug or kiss him because he had to start his quarantine.” Hod said that Grinberg was not only a travel agent, but a “travel angel.”

YET NOT all the stories of Israelis have such happy endings. As of now, there are an estimated 10,000 Israelis stranded in countries around the world. On Saturday, Foreign Minister Israel Katz said the ministry was working on a “national emergency plan” to bring home Israelis, including a special “war room” that would monitor efforts and requests. Four El Al planes made their longest flights ever, traveling non-stop from Lima with more than 1,000 Israelis on board. Planes have brought back travelers in India, Croatia and Australia. Yet there are still Israelis stranded in other places. Turkish Airlines will stop flying from Istanbul to Tel Aviv on Friday, March 27, further reducing flight options.
There are approximately 1,500 travel agents in Israel, and about 300 of them are members of a group on the Telegram app that provides crucial advice to help Israelis stranded abroad.
“Right now, travel agents have been doing what I see as holy work, 24/7, to help stranded Israelis,” said Rivka Lode who works for Scanorama Travel and Tours in Tel Aviv. She has worked as a travel agent since 1988, and she said she has never seen a crisis like this one. However, she said there is a sense of camaraderie among travel agents to find alternative, creative ways to help travelers. There are also airline employees who have joined the group, with the “gallows humor” name, Corona Club, to help agents navigate the very complicated travel world that could change within minutes.
Israelis are known as archetypal wandering Jews, and often joke that even in the most remote places of the world, one is bound to meet Israelis. Now, some of these travelers in far-flung places might not be able to leave for a while. Lode said she heard of several young Israeli women who are stuck in the Galapagos Islands, where there are no longer boats to bring them back to the mainland.
“Someone called me who’s stuck in the Philippines,” Grinberg said. “There are very few flights and even fewer seats.” Grinberg said she was sad to say that “for the moment, there is nothing I can do to help her.”

TRAVEL AGENTS are accustomed to booking tickets for clients and feeling confident that the flight would rarely, if ever, be canceled. Now, flights are grounded at the last minute. In Peru, for example, the country’s military shutdown went into effect with less than 24-hours’ notice, catching Israelis unaware.
For some people who were away, the urgency of the situation seemed too unreal to accept. Tamar Hod said that at first her son thought that because his mother is a nurse, she was exaggerating the severity of the health crisis. She convinced Tal to buy hand sanitizer and wear a mask, and he even sent his mother a WhatsApp photo to prove that he was following her suggestion. But by Saturday night, March 14, Hod persuaded him to leave.
“Tourists lying on a beach under palm trees or hiking up in the mountains couldn’t grasp the enormity of the situation,” said Grinberg. “By the time they understood it, for many of them, it was too late.”
In recent days, El Al airplanes have brought home Israelis from Peru and India. There are still Israelis left behind, and Mr. Katz said that Israel will “make every effort to bring them back soon.”
“No other country in the world cares for its citizens like this,” Katz said.
Some countries have taken measures to bring home their nationals but in a much more limited way. French authorities arranged emergency flights from Morocco; Germany’s foreign minister announced an airlift for some Germans in different parts of the world. Democratic senators sent a letter on Wednesday, March 18, to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expressing “urgent concerns” about American stranded abroad, but Pompeo said there are currently no evacuation plans. Last month, the US organized evacuation flights from China and Japan when the coronavirus outbreak began.

ISRAELI TRAVEL agents like Grinberg and Lode said they have done “the maximum” to help people and they are often surprised by customers’ responses. On the Telegram Group, one travel agent said, “When people bring cars to the auto repair shop, the mechanic charges for parts as well as service.” Travel agents, said Lode, work so hard to find solutions “and then customers complain about our minimal service charges.”
Other travel agents point out that customers used to boast to them that they got a cheaper deal on online travel websites, but in a crisis, there is nobody to turn to. Some online websites have crashed; others engage in price gouging for the few available seats. Lode and other agents said they put their “heart and soul” into helping, “and we certainly deserve to be paid for our work.”
After focusing on bringing Israelis home safely, Grinberg said that travel agents will then face their own bleak future. She explained that it will take “airlines a long while to restart their engines.” Pilots who have not flown in a while need to take refresher courses before they start working again. She sees 2020 as “a very difficult year.”
With 500,000 Israelis now unemployed, the days of Israelis trekking around the world might be over for a while. Some tourism experts predict that many airlines will go bankrupt — along with travel agencies and tour companies. But for now, the travel agents are doing what they can.
“After this last wave of Israelis can get home,” Grinberg said, “We won’t have any more work. Like the airplanes, we will be grounded.”