Coronavirus and Israel's tourism industry: Loss and hope – comment

This quarantine concept has thrown us for a loop and sent the tourism industry into a tailspin that could take months to recover.

THE ARRIVALS HALL at Ben-Gurion Airport – will it turn into a ghost town? (photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
THE ARRIVALS HALL at Ben-Gurion Airport – will it turn into a ghost town?
(photo credit: WIKIPEDIA)
I’ve been through wars, intifadas and 9/11. I’ve witnessed firsthand terrorism attacks and have seen Ben-Gurion Airport closed to all foreign airlines. The Israeli tourism industry has always recovered.
I’ve seen airlines go bankrupt and cease flying, stranding passengers halfway around the word. But I’ve never seen the damage that has fallen upon El Al, Arkia and Israir with no end in sight.
I’ve witnessed Terminal 3 at Ben-Gurion Airport come into existence and watched the low-cost carriers descend upon Terminal 1 like locust. But I have never seen day after day after day an airport that looks like it’s Yom Kippur every day.
I’ve battled with hotels over their inflated rates and begged them to treat my tourists better. Speaking to them today with groups disappearing faster than a speeding bullet is alarming. Israelis are canceling their stays at the Dead Sea and Eilat, and going to a hotel for Passover just became a health risk.
Corona is different. It’s burrowed deep into our consciousness.
Just last month, the news cycle and social media began a bombardment of coverage about the novel coronavirus, which appears to have originated in Wuhan, China. This has led to cruise-ship quarantines, canceled or postponed events and reductions or outright cancellations from entire countries to Israel. Flights to China fell first, and then South Korea and El Al announced delaying the kickoff of new flights to Japan.
Alitalia, Air France, Austrian Airlines, Lufthansa and Swiss have canceled all their flights to Israel through the month of March. This is in response to the Health Ministry banning all tourists from entering Israel and requiring Israelis to enter 14 days of quarantine. Holland is right behind, and now our beloved ministry wants to ban tourists from all flights from the great states of New York, California and Washington.
How many of you remember the 2002 West Nile Virus, the 2003 SARS? What about the 2009 Swine Flu or the 2016 Zika virus? In each of these cases, the initial hysteria and speculation died down as the true threat came to light.
The world’s reaction to the novel coronavirus is completely different.
This quarantine concept has thrown us for a loop and sent the tourism industry into a tailspin that could take months to recover from. El Al will survive; no government will let it fail. For the state, it represents a pipeline to the outside world. To some countries, such as South Africa, it is the only airline operating.
Yes, the government will insist El Al pay the price. It will demand deeper cuts in personnel, both salary-wise and number-wise. Yes, there’s a lot of fat still existing at El Al, and this may force it to cut to the bone. If the government had any sense, it would let Arkia and Israir merge, allowing them to compete effectively with the low-cost carriers in the future.
The stronger travel agencies will survive – because they have been diligent in putting money away for seasonal downturns, and the corporate world still requires insightful travel consultants. You’ll see the hotels crying for a reduction in their property taxes. But even lowering their rates to entice more Israelis won’t help, with so many fearful of being in crowds.
Some tourism sites will go out of business or deeper in debt. Most will survive. Masada still will be Masada. If the situation prevails into the summer, you’ll see tour guides give up their profession, unwilling to continue waiting.
Most of the public doesn’t understand COVID-19 from a factual, medical standpoint. This means lots of uncertainty, with one notable exception: We know the virus has the potential for death. Despite that result being incredibly unlikely for most of us, we’re gripped by the fear of it. We won’t fly, won’t go to conferences and won’t stay at a hotel
We are witnessing a perfect storm – an event in which a rare combination of circumstances drastically aggravates it. Escalation of the coronavirus crisis could pose a long-term impact on Israel’s tourism industry.
Ben-Gurion and Ramon airports were built for large numbers. The paltry amount of passengers who will set foot inside will do little to support the huge infrastructures. Companies that invested millions of shekels in their duty-free stores will find themselves with unsold inventory and tremendous losses.
If the experts are right that Corona is still spreading, we won’t only lose Passover and Easter, but this summer will see very few tourists. Cruise lines will bypass Israel’s ports, and tourists will not get off the boat to come up to Jerusalem for the day. We won’t hear about tourists getting shoddy treatment at a hotel or being ripped off by taxi drivers. There won’t be any news story about a tourism group paying thousands of dollars to dip their pitas into hummus.
How this will play out and who will remain standing can’t be predicted. Airlines will survive, travel agencies will thrive, and hopefully as the days grow longer, so will our understanding of the risks.

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