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With Israel requiring quarantine for nearly all incoming travelers, tourism personnel say ‘terrible’ situation has been a ‘rollercoaster’ of ‘inconsistencies,’ ‘half truths’

American companies that book tours to Israel also relate to the frustration, challenges, uncertainties and cancellations felt by their Israeli counterparts as interest in travel to the Holy Land suffers under difficult restrictions

A shop owner sits in his empty store at the tourist market in the Old City of Jerusalem, March 16, 2020. (Photo: Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

We are losing our relationship with our best friends.

With COVID infections in Israel rising at a rapid pace, the government approved a last-minute restriction last week that struck another blow to the struggling tourism industry: a seven-day quarantine requirement across the board for anyone entering Israel, from almost anywhere.

In a matter of days, the cancellations came pouring in.

The new ruling – which does not specify an end date – takes the tourism industry several steps backwards on its road to recovery and essentially closes the door indefinitely on groups waiting to visit in the coming months.

One word can sum up the general sentiment of those we spoke with in the Israeli tourism industry both here and abroad: frustration.

“We have lost three groups that were booked (for August) that we are still fighting for, but that is the least of our problems. The big problem is we cannot tell our clients who have groups scheduled in the coming months what to do,” Uri Avrouskine, general manager of Sar-El Tours, told us.

“Should they come? Should they cancel? Will they get their money back? No one can tell them what will happen.”

The mandated seven-day quarantine handed down by Israel’s Corona Cabinet last week requires anyone who enters Israel – vaccinated or not, citizen or tourist – to spend seven days in isolation. Average tours to Israel are 10 days, making such a requirement impossible for groups to comply with.

“It’s a different way of saying, ‘Don’t come,’” Avrouskine said.

“The way the decision was made was terrible in that it was from one day to another,” Avrouskine said. “Nothing is well planned and it is ruining our relationship with our (Israel’s) best friends,” he said of Evangelical Christians, Sar-El’s primary clients. “Everything is now one big mess.”

After barring entry to tourists for 15 months, the industry “was hijacked into some sort of a rollercoaster that goes up and down with rumors and half truths and not really enabling anyone to plan ahead,” contends Uri Steinberg, a consultant and tourism expert. 

The problem is the Ministry of Health is making all the decisions, says Steinberg, former head of the Tourism Ministry’s North and South America departments, and there is no road map for companies to follow.

“The Ministry of Tourism … it seems to be completely out of the picture. And that left everyone involved in the travel industry without any professional address,” Steinberg told us.

Avrouskine noted that there have been zero COVID cases among tourists since they were allowed back under a very limited pilot program that began in late May.

And no wonder. Take a look at the rigid protocol tourists must follow to get in:

  • They must be part of a pre-approved tour group that has received permission to travel to Israel, no individuals can enter

  • They must be fully vaccinated, at least two weeks after the second dose and provide proof of vaccination 
They must show a negative PCR before the flight and take one upon landing in Israel, paid for 24 hours in advance

  • They must take a blood test in Israel to show they have COVID antibodies

  • They must then self-isolate in their hotel rooms until all the results are in for the group

  • They must take a PCR test before leaving Israel

  • They must pay for all of the above tests out of pocket, almost an extra $200 per person

Emily Boyd, a travel advisor for Eagles’ Wings Ministry Travel which organizes tours to Israel from abroad, tells us that’s not all. A signed health declaration must be notarized with tourists declaring that they are aware they will be quarantined at their own expense in the event of a positive COVID test, a low antibody count or even a COVID symptom upon arriving in Israel.

All of these forms must be sent to the ground operator in Israel, which submits the forms to the Tourism Ministry for approval not more than two weeks before the trip leaving an entire group on the edge of their seats awaiting permission to fly.

“The fact that we even have the few that are willing to go through this exacting process of entry into Israel is amazing,” Boyd said. “I hope Israel recognizes that these people see a greater purpose than just taking a tour to Israel, willing to jump through these many hoops, to show their support.”

In any case, Boyd said “the group leaders are having trouble to get people to sign up – it’s too volatile of a climate to encourage people to travel.”

Consider this since March of last year: “The first year (2020) was spent cancelling groups. The second part of the year was rebooking or postponing trips – some of which are being cancelled for the second time,” Boyd continued.

“I planned four trips for one group and it has been cancelled three times, and the fourth is about to be cancelled as well,” which it was since this interview.

Boyd isn’t alone. Joel James, Global Client Services vice president for Inspiration Cruises & Tours based in California, said the requirements and the constant “movement of the goal posts” have contributed to a 30% overall drop in bookings for both Israel tours and cruises that the company organizes.

Inspiration has a trip to Israel scheduled for later this year, but with all the changing protocols more than half of the group has already dropped out.

“Every time they move the goal post, you lose certainty, and when you lose certainty you lose more people,” he said.

James said his company relates to the frustration that Israeli tour operators are expressing. Inspiration is constantly fielding calls from ministries organizing their tours and individual passengers awaiting their trip.

“We have an entire team talking to them to help them make good decisions,” he said, explaining the daily work of the past 18 months. “We have passengers and ministries wondering if they will be able to go in March, April or May of next year and we cannot give them a solid answer. We can say we are confident and hopeful about those dates, but in August of 2020 I was saying the same thing about this year – and up till now we’ve only had one event, and it was not to Israel.”

The industry is in limbo going forward.

The Tourism Ministry did not respond to questions from ALL ISRAEL NEWS before publication. Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov serves on the Corona Cabinet, the minutes of which are under a 30-year confidentiality agreement.

Moshe Gabay, director of Keshet Journeys – a tour operator specializing in tailor-made tours for Christians – said his company scrambled to get permits approved and 400 tourists into the country this summer.

“But the moment we got used to how to deal with the new institution they changed the rules again,” he said. “At the moment they are not giving the permits and, as long as the quarantine is on, they won’t let the groups in – the tourism pilot is stopped.”

Gabay said that the world is going to have to find a way to live – and travel – with COVID and expressed hope that Israel would eventually let up on some of its requirements.

“I still believe in miracles and that this, at one point, will leave us and then Israel can welcome even people that are not vaccinated,” Gabay said.

Considering the situation today, that day appears to be far off.

“The heartbreaking thing here is not just the fact that you’ve got companies and people who are losing their business because they have no traffic – it’s the fact that they are not able to plan ahead,” Steinberg said. “They’re unable to say, ‘The country is shut down for three months or for six months, so I better try to find an alternative.’”

From the travel companies themselves to tour guides, bus drivers and cab drivers to food companies that no longer supply massive orders to full hotels, the trickle-down effect of the closures is massive and affects hundreds of thousands of incomes and businesses across the country.

This isn’t something an economy can switch on and off.

“To turn the wheels of tourism takes months,” Avrouskine said. “It’s not a falafel store where I can buy a few vegetables, some pitas and get started again. People are involved, they have to plan to take vacation time, they have to book a flight.”

Avrouskine said those in the tourism industry are willing to do anything to make it happen at this point.

“Just tell us the rules, we will play,” he implored the government. “You call the shots. Tell us whatever– tell us anything you want – and we will try to price it and sell it. Maybe fewer will come, but just tell us the rules.”

Nicole Jansezian was the news editor and senior correspondent for ALL ISRAEL NEWS.

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