Travel Advisor: It’s a mad, mad world

How the coronavirus travel ban is affecting the Israeli psyche.

Travelers at Ben-Gurion Airport in March - to bring tourists back to Israel is not an act of lunacy. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
Travelers at Ben-Gurion Airport in March - to bring tourists back to Israel is not an act of lunacy.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN / REUTERS)
“All around me are familiar faces / Worn out places / Worn out faces / Bright and early for the daily races / Going nowhere, going nowhere / The tears are filling up their glasses / No expression, no expression / Hide my head, I wonna drown my sorrow / No tomorrow, no tomorrow. /  I find it hard to tell you / I find hard to take / When people running circles its a very, very / Mad world, mad world.”
Astute readers will note these are the lyrics to the 1982 song “Mad World” by Tears for Fears written by Roland Orzabal. Its haunting lyrics have been echoing in my mind as I try to grapple with the reality that COVID-19 has brought to the tourism Industry. It was nearly 9 p.m. when I joined dozens of people lining up outside Ben-Gurion Airport on a mid-September’s night. While the sun had set, the humidity sucked the energy of all of us in the queue, but the poignant melody of the song was being played on someone’s phone. Insane was the overall emotion that to leave the country this is what it had come to.
It is crystal clear that the overall rating in handling the pandemic by the Netanyahu administration the last seven months is deplorable and the decision-making process borders on madness. We are locked in and locked down, unclear what constitutes an essential business, and mixed signals emanate from so-called government leaders.
The Tourism Ministry reported that in 2019 Israel welcomed more than four and a half million tourists, who generated more than $6 billion in revenue. Those numbers represent a 55% increase from the previous year. How many of you knew that Asaf Zamir, barely 40, was the tourism minister from May until his resignation in October? No doubt his previous professional role as acting mayor in charge of education in Tel Aviv served him well in this role. His complete absence from any government input in creating a policy to assist the tens of thousands of people once employed in the tourism industry has me thankful that Tel Aviv children no longer rely upon his expertise in improving their own education.
Not surprisingly due to the deep friendship between US President Donald Trump and the prime minister, anyone with a valid US passport or a visa to the United States can board a flight to the US. As both United Airlines to Newark and Delta Airlines to JFK were flying, my decision to spend time with my family in Southern California required no government permission, no pre-COVID-19 testing and no quarantine when landing in the Golden State.
United Airlines’ country manager, Yael Barzilay, was kind enough to arrange my ticket in business class to California. Having worked at United Airlines in Israel for more than 20 years, her recent promotion to the top position will prove to be the biggest challenge of her professional career. Like all airlines, major cutbacks in both personnel and capacity is now the standard. Unstable is a polite way to describe their future.
United Airlines never stopped flying to and from Israel throughout the pandemic, and even with the government’s ban on Israelis to purchase a ticket, a law in effect since September 25, they continue flying to Newark, San Francisco, Chicago and soon Washington. Departing flights though these days can see fewer than 100 people on the planes, as so few customers had the savvy to purchase tickets before becoming land-bound inside Israel. How long that cretinous restriction will be in place is hard to say; suffice that the Supreme Court has been asked to rule on its legality. Unhinged is the best one can conjure up to try to explain the government’s policy.

What is not before the court though and what nobody in the Tourism Ministry has spoken about publicly is the near complete ban on tourists – a ban that has been in effect for more than seven months with still no talk of it being ended. Exceptions have been made for family visits, or Jewish Agency groups or those studying in a yeshiva, but 99% of the tourist market has been shuttered. Our policy mirrors Australia.
Australia’s borders are closed. Only Australian citizens, residents and immediate family members can travel to Australia. Australian Border Force liaison officers work with airlines at overseas airports to identify those who should not board flights to Australia. Since March 27, no foreign-flagged cruise ships may enter Australian waters. The cruise ship ban is in place until December 17, but this does not mean the ban will be lifted at that time. The Australian Health Principal Protection Committee reviews the ban regularly. Everyone who arrives in Australia will be quarantined for 14 days and might have to comply with other state and territory travel restrictions.
Israel though is not its own continent; it does not have a population of 25 million. And Australia’s policy with a death rate from COVID-19 well under 1,000 has not been mirrored in Israel.
Our diverse population is inhabited by a small minority hell bent on avoiding any government regulations when it comes to wearing a mask or observing social distancing. Our elected ministers and government officials flout the regulations and then offer tepid apologies.
Before entering the airport, I had to fill out a declaration stating my health over the previous 14 days; wearing a mask outside and inside the airport was mandatory. Boarding the 15-hour flight to San Francisco, the entire crew and passengers wore their masks. One felt quite safe on the flight although the fact that not a single person had to provide a pre-COVID-19 test before boarding left most of us quite cautious. No trolley service was provided with the entire evening meal brought out on a tray. In fact, one observed very little staff and passenger interaction. Most people stayed in their seat, only leaving to use the lavatory, which was kept spotless throughout the trip. Once when the mask slipped below my nose, did an attendant come forward and ask that I fix it. With the plane barely half full, I ate, read and slept quite soundly.
It was the return flight though that the reality hit me like a block of bricks. The entire plane, aside from the crew, were all Israelis. There might have been an errant tourist but other than the crews’ announcements one could only hear Hebrew. Our brilliant leaders chose to emulate an island country – New Zealand. Yes, few non-Kiwis can enter New Zealand and anyone else coming to New Zealand must be coming for a critical purpose and they must request approval first. Travel must be for a reason that is critical and is on the critical purpose list. Yet with only 25 deaths, their policy works for them. It does not work for Israel. Never did, never will and should be scrapped as soon as possible.
To bring tourists back to Israel is not an act of lunacy. In fact, Israel should look to emulate countries like Greece or Austria or most of the islands in the Caribbean. Even France and Germany demand anyone flying from Israel present a negative COVID-19 test. Why doesn’t Israel? While we like to see ourselves as unique or the “Chosen People,” perhaps emulating what dozens of countries already do should be initiated.
What is the possible downside to such a requirement? That tourists will not want to pay to have it done. Nobody is coming to Israel; we have already banned them. So, putting in such a requirement has only an upside. In fact, I would hope that all the countries band together and make such a requirement obligatory for all citizens. People would feel far more confident to resume air travel, knowing that every single person on the plane was negative from COVID-19.
I understand the tests aren’t 100% accurate. We’ve all read the reports that there exist many false positives. So what? Even if they are only 80% accurate, we create an environment where people are being tested before getting on a plane. Incoming groups and delegations to Israel will take special care to isolate themselves from the general population but they do need an additional COVID-19 test before boarding their plane back to their home country.
I was heading to the US for the holidays primarily to visit my family. I was not concerned about Ben-Gurion Airport or the plane; I knew enough to realize the precautions being taken far exceeded a visit to my local supermarket.
Airlines’ commitment to constant and continual cleanliness has led to a new jargon of words. Many airlines now tout their electrostatic spraying. Electrostatic spraying provides a safe and effective way to thoroughly clean an aircraft cabin from floor to ceiling, sanitizing areas that employees and customers frequently touch. These sprayers electrically charge and disperse liquid disinfectant in a fine mist that clings to surfaces such as seats, seatback screens, armrests, tray tables, doors, lavatories and galleys throughout the aircraft interior.
The reality is that while it appears airlines are taking their role seriously, governments are not. You can close your borders and stick your head in the sand, and for Australia and New Zealand that policy is saving their citizens’ lives. Or you create a policy that allows the economy of the country to prosper, without endangering the health of its citizens. And for Israel that is the only option available but one the government has been impotent to execute.
Israel is a democracy; visible in the constant demonstrations taking place throughout the nation. The pandemic gave Israeli democracy an opportunity to highlight the advantages of being a democracy with a special morality whose values are grounded in its constitution. But our leadership failed. Vacillating between closures and openings; unable to isolate those communities with the highest COVID-19 infections, we have been floundering for months.
The tourism industry is a prime example of government inaction or ineptitude. Why ban the selling of new tickets except to placate the Israeli hotel industry whose doors are shut?
Pandering to populism makes the policy reek of duplicity. For those who have enough money to fly abroad, as they cannot stay in an Israeli hotel, will simply be banned outright from leaving the country. Decades ago, an Israeli government tried implementing a travel tax. The naïve belief was if you have money to travel abroad you can pay an outrageous travel tax. It was banished to the dustbins when intelligent policy-makers grasped that the ability to travel abroad is a human right that no government should deny.
For more than seven decades Israelis have lived in a pressure cooker. The ability to travel abroad, once seen as a sign of luxury has long ago become the norm for the great majority of citizens. The advent of low-cost carriers and the emergence of Airbnb meant it was now cheaper to travel abroad than to vacation inside the country. Bed and breakfast places, zimmers, sprouted all over Israel offering reasonable prices.
Tourists brought hard-earned currency into the country. Along with their complaints of abusive taxi drivers or overpriced hummus joints, their love for this country, the cacophony they created, allowed thousands of Israelis to benefit economically. Both hotel chains and boutique hotels capitalized on the tourists and the Open Skies policy inaugurated by then- transportation and now Finance Minister Israel Katz was a huge boon to our revenues.
Israelis’ desire and demand to be healthy and to be protected against the spread of COVID-19 is real. It resonates in every household; so, does the craving for economic benefits. Tourists bring those benefits. We need to bring tourism back to Israel.
We have a 26-year-old American-Israeli Jew now running El Al. We have a supermarket mogul trying to purchase Israir. The world has gone mad. But maybe, just maybe there is one sane person in our government who realizes that in a completely sane world, madness is the only freedom.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem. For questions and comments email him at mark.feldman@ziontours.co.il