Tourists will come back, but will Israeli infrastructure survive?

TRAVEL ADVISER: Those thousands of agents and tour guides won’t come back. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

A rare sight these days – A group of tourists listen to their tour guide outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre last year. (photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)
A rare sight these days – A group of tourists listen to their tour guide outside the Church of the Holy Sepulchre last year.
(photo credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

Most of us know that “mea culpa,” which means “through my fault” in Latin, is simply an acknowledgment of one’s fault or error. In the battle over COVID-19, very few politicians or health officials have ever uttered those words.In the nearly two-year battle, we have seen governments rise and fall, politicians elected and defeated; and, throughout the world, how they battled this insipid virus has been with a clarion call aimed at the masses.Some countries shut down their borders completely – Australia, and Israel for most of the last two years. The thought was – before there were vaccines – that in this way they could keep corona out.

For some countries, it actually worked. Isolated countries like New Zealand were able to protect their citizens from the ravages of the pandemic and have recorded only 51 deaths. Italy, with a similar population, has recorded 138,000 deaths. The difference is staggering.

One cannot fault Israel’s medical system, not even with the recent reports of long lines to be tested. Our hospitals may be overwhelmed, but to date, only 8,244 Israelis have lost their lives.

Even more impressive and a testament to the pharmaceutical companies, in the last year, since vaccines rolled out, only a minuscule number of Israelis hospitalized belonged to those vaccinated.

Leaving politics aside, both the Netanyahu administration and now the Bennett government have been doing the best they can to protect their citizens. Hospitals did not collapse. Corona hospital wards were opened and shuttered throughout the country. Some less critical operations and procedures were postponed, but the medical system survived. We can and should feel pride in how Israel is dealing with the pandemic from the medical side.It’s the tourism industry where our leaders must utter “mea culpa.”

 TOURISM INDUSTRY employees protest new government regulations preventing non-Israelis from entering the country, in Tel Aviv, December 27. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90) TOURISM INDUSTRY employees protest new government regulations preventing non-Israelis from entering the country, in Tel Aviv, December 27. (credit: TOMER NEUBERG/FLASH90)

It was back in March 2020 that the government came up with the idea that one must request permission to travel abroad. It didn’t matter if you were a dual citizen; thousands of passengers were forced to request permission to get on a plane and leave Israel. In fact, many of them were forced to stay abroad for several weeks.

The reasoning behind Israel’s adoption of rules previously employed only by Communist regimes was the fear that flying abroad could increase the risk of COVID-19 coming into Israel.

Empirical evidence shows that dozens of infected people from areas as diverse as New York and Uman in Ukraine flew into Israel.

Salaried workers, be they travel agents or tour operators, received 70% of their salaries for dozens of months from the National Insurance Institute.

This didn’t cover tour guides, or any independent contractors. They were left high and dry, with zero government support. All financial assistance to salaried workers in the tourism industry ceased last October.

We added to our lexicon “quarantine hotels,” to which incoming passengers were sent to wait out the contagion period. The Defense Ministry took over dozens of hotels, letting everyone have a taste of army food. Most other hotels were shuttered; with no incoming tourists arriving and Israelis banned from such gatherings, holiday after holiday passed by.

But then, miracle of miracles, vaccines came into the picture.

Our medical system created a vast network of sites where one could get vaccinated. Pictures abounded of Israelis getting their first jabs, then a second jab, then, months later, their first booster.

The anti-vaxxers around the world were steadfast in their opposition to vaccines. Theories abounded it was all initiated on purpose from China. Later the charge became that the pharmaceutical companies and health officials conspired to create these vaccines to achieve great profits.

In the US, one of the leading forces against vaccines is none other than Robert F. Kennedy Jr. Watching him speak causes great pain to those who remember his father and uncle.

He loves to stride onto a stage, radiating Kennedy confidence and taking in the standing ovation with his piercing blue Bobby Kennedy eyes. Then, he launches into an anti-vaccine rant.

Democrats “drank the Kool-Aid,” he tells the crowd. “It is criminal medical malpractice to give a child one of these vaccines,” Kennedy contends, according to a video of the event, one of his many assertions that ignored or went against legal, scientific and public health consensus.

His anti-vaccine organization, Children’s Health Defense, raised over $20 million last year.

In Israel the anti-vaxxers are less organized, with no charismatic leader. They are just as adamant as Kennedy but spend their energies heckling health officials.

Quarantine hotels were shut down; Israelis could return to movies, sporting events and getting on a plane without asking anyone’s permission. Our short time mimicking an authoritarian regime was behind us. Better to expend our energies on vaccinating the multitudes and requiring PCR tests to do everything from attending a basketball game to getting on a plane.

The Delta variant came in strong, and Israel’s health network withstood the pressure. Israel felt confident it could control COVID-19 by a combination of vaccination and testing.

After 19 months, the Land of Milk and Honey was opened up for tourists – fully vaccinated ones, of course, with the same requirement of being tested prior to boarding the plane and once more when landing at Ben-Gurion Airport.

It worked. Tour guides were working; airlines were flying at nearly full capacity, and travel agencies could finally bring back their workers.

Then arose the Greek tragedy. Far more transmittable than the original COVID-19 and its variants, Omicron in Israel has spread like wildfire. Thousands of Israelis are infected daily.

Health Ministry officials say that over three-quarters of the serious cases are among the unvaccinated.

Some believe Israel is trying for herd immunity, thus in theory putting an end to COVID-19. Others claim that for those vaccinated Omicron is far milder than the Delta variant, rarely resulting in hospitalization.

These days almost everyone knows someone with COVID. It has run through the schools and throughout workplaces. Some officials believe we may reach 50,000 infected citizens a day; others claim there is no apocalypse, and that our health system can cope with it.

Nonetheless, the Bennett administration took no chances, locking out the tourists and reverting to the antiquated system of requiring permission to travel abroad. Initially, 70 countries were put on the list. It didn’t matter if you were vaccinated or not; didn’t matter if, upon return, you had to do quarantine; getting permission to depart the country became mandatory.

The outpouring from the tourism industry was one of shock and stupefaction. What logic was there in banning Israelis from traveling abroad? Why should vaccinated tourists not be allowed into the country?

Just last week thousands of travel professionals took to the streets of Tel Aviv, sitting down on the main boulevard across from Azrieli Center. Some would say it was comical, but the level of frustration exceeds anything I’ve ever experienced. Wars were short-lived; airline strikes and weather events passed quickly.

Some airlines, such as British Airways and Virgin, stopped flying completely. Air Canada pulled out in March. Other airlines, such as American, Delta and United, cut down the frequency of flights but continue serving Tel Aviv.

The airlines do not feel comfortable speaking up about government policy. They may privately utter serious complaints but won’t publicize. El Al, which lost over $4m. in one day from canceled groups, is negotiating furiously for more state assistance.

I’VE BEEN spending the week finally letting go of much of my staff. Twenty or 30 years of experience doesn’t matter; they won’t be coming back. After nearly two years, the reality is their careers are over.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman was gruff when his response to requests for financial assistance was: “They should find another profession.”

Tour guides, hotel workers are left out in the cold. One of my agents has hired a lawyer to see if she can get more money out of the office instead of the 30 days’ notice we are legally obligated to provide.

The largest convention in North America, originally started by Sheldon Adelson, is the Consumer Electronic Show. El Al, after weeks and months of cajoling, added a nonstop flight to Las Vegas. The seats were gobbled up, and it would have been a huge bonanza for El Al.

Then the US was declared red. Dual citizens with family living abroad were given permission to depart the country, but Israeli businesspeople had little leeway, and all their requests were denied. Company after company canceled their tickets. They would tell me how badly they wanted to attend the convention, how vital it was for Israel’s economy. Sadly, just last week, El AL scrapped its nonstop flight to Vegas, as nearly 80% of the passengers who had tickets had canceled.

Yes, I know this is short term; it will be over in a few weeks. Omicron infections will plateau shortly, and once the numbers drop, no country should remain red.

THIS WEEK the government has issued numerous decisions affecting travel to and from Israel.

In a striking turnaround, the government has restored the right of vaccinated/recovered tourists to enter Israel, if arriving from orange countries. This will take effect at midnight on January 10 (the night between Sunday and Monday).

Non-vaccinated/non-recovered tourists from orange countries will continue to be barred from entering Israel, except for those qualifying for entry under exceptional circumstances. Tourists from red countries will continue to be barred, even if vaccinated/recovered.

In a related move, the Health Ministry moved South Africa, Hungary, Nigeria, Spain, Portugal, France and Canada to the orange list. The larger blow was that countries such as the United States, the UK, Ethiopia, Tanzania, Mexico, Switzerland and Turkey remain on the red list.

Yes, the countries where most Israelis fly into and where the majority of tourists come from – the US and the UK – are verboten. Doesn’t matter if you have a US or UK passport; if you want to fly to New York or London, you need permission. And you better have a damn good reason, or you will be rejected. Easiest path is to have a parent over 80 living there. A scan of their passport does the trick, provided their last name is the same as yours.

Quarantine rules will change, as well. Just this week, recovered/vaccinated travelers entering Israel from orange countries will be permitted to perform a shortened quarantine. They will be permitted to exit quarantine after 24 hours or upon receiving negative COVID results, the earlier of the two.

Non-vaccinated/non-recovered passengers entering from orange countries will continue to be required to quarantine for 14 days. This may be shortened to seven days with a negative PCR test on the first and seventh days.

While no government or health officials yelled out “mea culpa,” I’ll take it.

WHAT IS my concern? That a dangerous precedent has been created. If we have another variant, will the government react like it did for Omicron? Ban incoming tourists, revert to color coded countries, and require permission to depart the country?

This fear paralyzes the travel industry. So many groups are planned for the spring, both to depart Tel Aviv and to arrive here. But nobody can guarantee that even fully vaccinated travelers will be allowed to depart or arrive, if a new variant emerges.

The tourism and travel industries have been devastated. Hundreds of tour guides long ago took the Liberman approach and left the profession. Some of the best incoming travel agencies with a phenomenal track record have gone out of business.

Like 9/11, the ripple effect of COVID-19 continues. American Express in Israel has closed all its branches except one in Tel Aviv.

We’ve all heard about Diaspora Jews' concerns about being locked out of Israel, but they will return. We saw it in November when hundreds of groups arrived. Birthright may have canceled its winter programs, but it has not severed its ties with Israel.

It’s the Israeli infrastructure that won’t recover. Those thousands of agents and tour guides won’t come back. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.

The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem, and a director at Diesenhaus. For questions and comments email him at [email protected]