When will tourists return to Tel Aviv?

As COVID-19 continues to overshadow life around the globe, countries are seeing a major hit to their economies, especially those that rely heavily on tourism.

WILL TOURISTS fill the beach beds? (photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
WILL TOURISTS fill the beach beds?
(photo credit: MIRIAM ALSTER/FLASH90)
As summer kicks off, Tel Aviv looks and sounds a bit different than it usually does at this time of year. Walking down Rothschild Boulevard, one does not see summer tour groups. On the beach, there are no Taglit-Birthright groups; no tourists explore the Israeli coast.
As COVID-19 continues to overshadow life around the globe, countries are seeing a major hit to their economies, especially those that rely heavily on tourism. Israel is one of those countries. In 2019, according to the Tourism Ministry, the Jewish state welcomed a record 4.55 million tourists.
Now, with so many flights grounded, quarantines and health hazards – what is going to happen to Israeli tourism, and specifically Tel Aviv tourism?
According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, tourism was already down 0.5% in January and 0.7% in February, and this was before corona began to take over.
Beginning in early March, flights were canceled and now only a few airlines are still flying in and out of Ben-Gurion Airport. What does this mean for businesses that are tourism-centric?
Yael Froman-Ideses, director of tourism for Tel Aviv Global & Tourism, said that before the coronavirus hit, they were expecting another record-breaking year.
“One peak season is between April and June, maybe July and then September to November.”
With the pandemic running rampant worldwide during peak tourism seasons, many small business owners are concerned how this will affect their bottom line and are rebranding and looking for innovative ways to stay afloat.
Jennifer Elias and Jessica Rosner run Tech It Forward, a company that brings international delegations to Israel to meet with start-ups and other companies, and said their entire approach has changed since COVID-19 struck.
The women are still bridging the gap between global businesses and Israelis, but doing so virtually.
“We used to bring one or two international delegations here a week, but now we have none. However, our business has not stopped. Instead, we are having some of the delegations meet with these start-ups over Zoom,” Rosner explained. She believes these delegations won’t begin again until 2021.
Both agreed that Zoom conferences are helpful, but are not the same as being in the same room.
SMALL-BUSINESS OWNERS are preparing for revenue loss at the hands of corona.
A part owner of three Tel Aviv nightclubs and manager of the NOX Group, a leading holdings company in IsraelI nightlife, Samuel Vago is concerned not only about the lack of tourism but also the financial crisis.
“I think it’s going to take a very long time for anything to come back and fully recover. Even if tourism increases, people may be less likely to spend money on leisure activities.”
He feels the club and bar industry are likely to be the last to recover, especially with the new concept of social distancing.
“No one is going to want to be all cramped together in a small place,” he lamented.
And it’s not just nightclub owners who feel this way. Tourist companies are also concerned with social distancing.
Multiple tour operators explained that they are getting very few to almost no inquiries about large group tours.
LeeAnn Lager, a Dekel Tours manager, told the Magazine they typically see at least 15 tours in April, from single-day tours to all-inclusive packages. Now all of their tours through July are canceled and industry experts are not optimistic about international tourism happening at all this summer.
“We’ve been trying to encourage our clients to not cancel in advance and keep their trip until the last minute.”
Many of these tour operators and hotels have also begun changing their cancellation policies and now allow travelers to have more flexible cancellations.
“We typically require a full payment of the trip 30 days before, but we’ve been more flexible with this policy in order to try to keep people for as long as possible. We still have trips planned for August and moving forward.”
A number of tour operators and Tel Aviv-based hotels told the Magazine that they stand to lose more than 50% of their revenue if the country does not open up.
The David Intercontinental, one of the biggest hotels in Tel Aviv, employs around 1,000 people, but according to Sofi Cherny, almost everyone working there has been furloughed.
“The hotel is doing everything it can to not outright fire people, so they have laid off 95-97% of the company, I believe,” said Cherny.
These numbers are common among hotels, bars, restaurants and tourist-centric companies. Many remain hopeful that with all the government intervention, COVID-19 restrictions will continue to be lifted and hopefully by mid-summer most of these businesses will be up and running to full capacity again.
However, it seems unlikely that Israel will have another year of record-breaking international tourism.
The writer is a former breaking news editor and freelance reporter at The Jerusalem Post. She holds an MA in conflict resolution with an emphasis in the Middle East conflict from the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya.