Israel-Greece tourism agreement is a loss for Israel - opinion

Deal opens door for Israeli tourists to visit Greece very soon but hurts Israel’s tourism industry, trade deficit and public health

GREEK PRIME MINISTER Kyriakos Mitsotakis waves during a visit to Israel in June. (photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
GREEK PRIME MINISTER Kyriakos Mitsotakis waves during a visit to Israel in June.
(photo credit: YONATAN SINDEL/FLASH90)
You may have missed it while trying to work with your kids in the house, but earlier this week, Israel hosted the Greek prime minister and his tourism minister in Jerusalem. Among a flurry of agreements and press conferences, the tourism ministries of both countries signed an accord to ease travel restrictions to Greece for inoculated Israelis once some of the current coronavirus restrictions are lifted. The upshot of the agreement is that Israeli tourists will soon be able to travel to Greece on vacation, most likely by the critical summer period that many tourism economies depend on.
The accord is essentially a loss for Israel’s economy and tourism sector and a danger to its public health.
In 2019, over 600,000 Israelis traveled to Greece, overwhelmingly for leisure purposes, choosing Greece over Israeli hotels and attractions. Essentially, there is competition between the Israeli and Greek tourism economies for Israeli vacation money. There is little reciprocation from Greece – only 29,700 Greek tourists came to Israel in 2018. 
Rushing to assure that Greece can host Israelis solves Greece’s problem at Israel’s expense. It deals a blow to Israel’s fragile tourism sector, which is always the first to absorb the damage brought on by recessions or security conflicts and is the last to recover from these misfortunes. Israeli tour guides, hotels, restaurants and attractions will watch as domestic tourists are encouraged to leave the country while foreign tourists are barred entry. Moreover, Israel has no way of monitoring restrictions on hotels or restaurants in Greece while it holds Israeli hotels and restaurants to restrictions dictated by the purple label (Tav Segol) policy.
This is a macro-economic problem which also affects Israel’s trade deficit. Every dollar paid by a foreign tourist in Israel counts as an export, in which an Israeli good or service is bought using money coming into the country from abroad. Conversely, outgoing tourism is a de facto import, trading Israeli money for foreign goods and services. The goal is to export more than you import. Strong incoming tourism spending, which was the third-largest contributor to Israel’s GDP in recent years, offsets the trade balance in Israel’s favor. Letting shekels out of the country without increasing incoming dollars or euros burdens that balance against Israel.
There is also the issue of caseload. One of the main blunders of coronavirus management was the virtually uninhibited passage of active coronavirus cases into the country via Ben-Gurion Airport. Infected travelers returning from the United Kingdom, Dubai, Turkey and other destinations brought the virus and its new strains into the country, with one returning traveler infecting 180 people on his own . As the EU struggles to vaccinate its population, and with little certainty over the long-term efficacy of the vaccine, it seems imprudent to pursue an accord that will send thousands of Israelis to a country which currently has vaccinated only 2.75% of its population.
Don’t get me wrong – I am all in favor of bilateral tourism agreements and am especially pleased with Israel’s growing tourism ties in the region, and with Greece in particular. The agreement also included increased cooperation on tourism issues between the two countries, which is extremely welcome and a feather in the cap of the prime minister and tourism minister. As a former tourism consultant, I am also looking ahead to the time when we can all travel freely and see the world. I understand that we all want to go on a well-deserved international vacation. However, the timing and structure of the deal asks the Israeli tourism sector to donate blood when what it needs is a transfusion.
What we need is a comprehensive, long-term strategy for encouraging domestic tourism in the near future. This strategy needs to operate under the assumption that we will continue to live with the virus in some way for the next few years, and that other countries will lag behind us in vaccination rates, making international tourism dollars scarce. Hotels, restaurants and tour providers need clear operating guidelines that will allow them to open safely, and bureaucratic and tax-related hurdles need to be temporarily removed or mitigated.
Israel is a beautiful, fascinating country with so much to offer Israeli travelers craving a change of scenery. Instead of directing us to foreign lands, our government should help us rediscover our own country and allow our battered tourism sector to get back on its feet.
The writer is a graduate student at Harvard University and a former consultant at the International Institute of Tourism Studies.