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Long-awaited reopening of Israeli tourism threatened by Ben-Gurion Airport COVID testing dispute

Opening could be pushed back due to tests, new virus variant from India

A technician collects nasal swab samples for COVID-19 at the coronavirus lab at the Ben-Gurion International Airport on February 28, 2021. (Photo: Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Israel is preparing to welcome vaccinated international tourists as early as May 23 in an effort to rehabilitate the Holy Land’s pandemic battered tourism industry.

However, a legal dispute over COVID-19 testing at Israel’s international Ben-Gurion airport is threatening to postpone the scheduled reopening of Israel to international tourists even further.

The company Omega, which won Israel Airport Authority’s tender for COVID and serology tests at Ben-Gurion airport, has been disqualified and Israeli authorities are currently looking for a replacement. Omega will end its operations at the airport on May 22 and Israel’s Ministry of Health is currently comparing costs for alternative operators. 

A serious hurdle is the pricing issue. The prices of Omega were on average one-third of the competing tender bids. Omega currently charges 45 shekels ($13.80) for a regular virus test result within 14 hours. By comparison, Pangea, the company that came in second in the tender competition, reportedly charges a whopping 149 shekels ($45). If chosen, it would mean that Israeli and foreign passengers would have to pay triple the current testing cost. Even Omega’s quick testing within four hours only costs 135 shekels ($41). 

The first international tourists were scheduled to arrive on May 23. Due to the pandemic, Israel has been almost completely closed to international tourists for over a year. According to the Israeli Tourism Ministry’s pilot stage, Israel will initially welcome some 30 tour groups, with approximately 600 vaccinated tourists.

However, it remains unclear how the current legal testing dispute at the airport will affect the reopening of the Jewish state to foreign visitors. Ben-Gurion currently receives some 5,000 incoming passengers every day. This moderate number is expected to reach 10,000 in June and 15,000 in July. 

Regarding the uncertainty with future testing, the Israel Airport Authority deferred to the Ministry of Health: "We await the Ministry of Health's decision and will act accordingly."

For its part, the Ministry of Health said it is "checking alternatives for providing PCR testing for those arriving at Ben-Gurion Airport and will arrange matters accordingly." 

The COVID testing dispute at the airport is not the only hurdle threatening Israel’s ailing tourism industry. Due to new virus variants from India and elsewhere, Israel’s Health Ministry recently recommended postponing the reopening of Israel to foreign tourists until at least the end of June. 

Israel’s Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen has been pushing hard for reopening Israel. The ministry has specifically prioritized tourists from the United Kingdom, the United States and the United Arab Emirates. 

“We want to breathe oxygen back into the tourism economy of Israel, and Israel has the advantage as a healthy, vaccinated country,” said Farkash-Hacohen at a Tel Aviv press conference at the end of April.

Due to its world-leading vaccination program, the Jewish state has emerged as an increasingly attractive and safe travel destination. While there is a big potential for attracting foreign tourists to Israel, it requires coordination and cooperation between different Israeli authorities. 

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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