Passover is the festival when Jews as a nation celebrate being freed from the chains of Egyptian slavery. This Pessah, however, Israel’s tour guides will be celebrating their own personal freedom – that of being free to work again doing what they know best, following all the corona restrictions and upheaval of the past two years. The opening of Israel’s skies has meant that tourists are yet again coming to Israel and enjoying all that Israel has to offer.
“My tour guide business dried up completely because of the pandemic,” says Yosef Yeinan. “I’ve guided only a handful of days since March 2020, and that’s been the situation of nearly all licensed guides who work in incoming tourism. Those who work in domestic tourism did only slightly better by guiding Israelis in between lock-downs when Israelis were allowed out of their homes, but tourists were not yet allowed into the country.
“Right now, everyone in the incoming tourism field, guides and agents alike, are busy rewriting programs and tours that were scheduled and then canceled over the last few months. Unfortunately, though, the uncertainty created by the zigzags in government regulation has left many potential tourists still wary of booking international travel.”
Yeinan said that for Pessah, “I am guiding an extended family of 10-14 people for a day in Hebron and Gush Etzion. I found a bus and driver, so there’s a day’s work for the driver too and some profit for the bus company that owns the bus. In years past I rarely worked on Hol Hamoed (the intermediate days of the holiday). The roads and sites are overcrowded. Shabbat and Yom Tov break up the days for guided touring, so it’s not great for overseas tourists either unless they’re also here to visit family,” in which case they often don’t need a guide anyway. If there isn’t more work for Passover, “I’ll be with family – children and grandchildren – so that’s also good.”
He said that most families will book for when schools get out in June. “Organized groups, synagogues, etc. can’t come on six to eight weeks’ notice, so they will be here later in the spring and summer.”
Yeinan said that he was optimistic about the industry picking up eventually, “but things will take time. I guess that it will take a year or two more to reach the levels that we saw before the pandemic. There is also a new worldwide emphasis on sustainable tourism, and tourism rooted in the ideals of personal and communal growth and meaning, areas in which I suspect Israel can and will excel.”
Shuli Mishkin, another travel guide, said her business, “like all other guides, dropped to zero. Fortunately, I was able to build up a business in virtual touring and writing, and in doing that met many new people from all over the world. Some of these new friends and clients now want to meet in person and tour Israel, which is amazing.
“In November, I (and many other guides) had a wonderful month with real tourists! Then it all crashed again, but now that Omicron seems to be behind us, I have had many inquiries for Pessah, May and the summer. God willing things should just stay the same – or improve.”
Mishkin said that she has a few private tours booked for Hol Hamoed, as well as a tour with members of a Teaneck, New Jersey shul whom he has been guiding virtually for the past year. “I am super excited that we will get to tour in person,” said Mishkin. “I guide all over Israel, my specialty is Jewish educational tourism.”
Mishkin is also optimistic about the tourism industry picking up. However, she pointed out, “the past two years have taught us the future is not in our hands, only what we choose to do with the cards that are handed to us. Let’s hope and pray for the best all over the world.”
Tour guide Tali Tarlow said that the only thing that prevented a complete collapse her business “was our pivot to online games that can be played from anywhere in the world, and creating City Dash, in which local Israel families could play in their family capsules in their own time and at their own pace without interacting at all with our staff.
“There has been a major spike recently in inquiries, and we are getting lots of bookings for Pessah. It’s really fun to be corresponding with clients again. To prepare for Pessah we are printing new material, training new guides, and establishing the limitations of what we can and can’t do this year. Our team is much smaller now, so we will not have the same capacity for bookings that we had two years ago.”
Looking to the future, Tarlow says that while she is optimistic that the industry will pick up, “there have been many changes on the tourism map here in Israel, and some things will not return to how it was before corona.”
Guide Gila Rosenfeld said that since the lifting of restrictions, she has had “a flood of tour requests for the spring season. Most of my bookings are for before Pessah, with only the tail end of one tour group overlapping with the first two days of Pessah.”
That group, she said, due to the dates it is coming, “will actually experience Easter, Ramadan and Pessah, which is really unique. I plan on doing a non-traditional educational Pessah service before dinner on Seder night with the participants so that they can experience and learn about the Passover holiday.”
Gila said that Israel is expecting a deluge of tourists over Passover. “Many come to experience Pessah in Israel and stay at all-inclusive resorts, or they come to visit family, and usually most visitors over this period, in my experience, do not use tour guides. Though in previous years I have worked over Pessah, it is not always enjoyable due to the large number of visitors to sites and National Parks during Hol Hamoed and huge traffic jams so it is not easy to get around.”
Guide Joel Haber said that during corona, he shifted very quickly to doing work online: virtual tours, online lectures, freelance writing, etc. “I had already been heavily involved in researching, writing about and lecturing on Jewish food history, so I launched a blog on the subject (www.tasteofjew.com) and spent a lot of time working on a book (now about half-complete). I also went to the States for a month to do a lecture tour about the topic, in October-November. And I did actual touring whenever the few opportunities presented themselves.
“I am seeing a number of requests for tours, but I saw the same type of increase in booking requests when the airports reopened in November, and we all know how that turned out.”
Haber is preparing for Passover as he usually would. “I am operating with a business as usual attitude: when a tourist requests a tour, if I am available, I accept and proceed with the bookings. That being said, I also know that anything can change at any point, and as with prior cancellations, if any one of these tours needs to be canceled due to airport closures, illness or anything else, I will obviously have to simply accept that and not be able to recoup any of those losses. So I proceed as normal until something changes.
“For Pessah, I intend to do a lot of work here in Jerusalem – Old City, the shuk, Israel Museum, etc. The next largest segment of my work is day trips out of Jerusalem (Dead Sea vicinity, the Shfela, Tel Aviv, etc.). And then the smallest portion is extended multi-day trips around the entire country. Topics I am fairly knowledgeable on are food, archaeology and religions.”
Reflecting on what he has learned from corona, Haber says he is “very guardedly hopeful. I am an optimist by nature, but I also have had two main lessons reinforced in my mind during the pandemic. First, no one knows anything. Second, anything can change at any time for any number of reasons. Therefore, I plan as much as I need to, but I also remain as flexible and ‘go-with-the-flow’ as possible. And I think as little as possible about what will be in the future.”
Guide Ami Braun said that with incoming tourism finally returning to Israel after a two-year hiatus, “during Pessah vacation we’ll have the opportunity to experience local tourism mixing with visitors from abroad. If in the past I complained when having to fight the crowds of both local and incoming tourism, I will now be welcoming it while guiding visitors from the US through the width and breadth of Israel.
“Over Pessah there are many locations I am taking tourists around Israel, including Tel Aviv & Jaffa with its various sites, the Palmah Museum, Caesarea, Zichron Ya’acov, Tulip winery, Golan Heights sites including Jeeps, hiking trails and lookouts, Tzfat, Tel Dan, Rosh Hanikra, Akko, Yemin Orde school, Masada and the Dead Sea, and the Gush Etzion area.
“In Jerusalem, I will take my clients to the shuk Mahaneh Yehuda, Yad Vashem and Mount Herzl.”
Tour guide Yomi Groner says that a popular thing to do over Hol Hamoed in Jerusalem is Birkat Kohanim, the priestly blessing.
“You also have some wonderful wineries – the Gvaot Winery has matzah and cheese. You can also join Shiloh ATV for a fun time, and then relax over some wine. Kabir Winery in Elon Moreh will also be open, and you can enjoy their amazing wines while overlooking Mount Ebal and Mount Bracha, where Joshua built an altar.”
After two years of disruption, Israel’s tour guides are back at work, showing tourists around Israel and educating them about Israel’s past, present and future. Hopefully, this Pessah will be a turning point when all the havoc that corona caused to the tourism industry will finally be over, and they can get back full time to the work they love doing so much. ■