While rockets fly, Israel prepares for tourism reopening

Written by on May 20, 2021

While Hamas continues to launch rockets from Gaza, Israel’s Tourism Ministry is moving ahead with its plans to reopen the country to foreign visitors within weeks.

Last month, the ministry presented a timeline for welcoming inbound tourism, under which a limited number of vaccinated foreign tour groups would be allowed into the country in a pilot program starting this Sunday, May 23.

If the ministry’s plans for effectively testing the visitors for COVID-19 and tracking their movements proves successful, then more groups will be allowed to visit and if all goes according to plan, individual travelers will be allowed to start visiting from July 1.

The first phase of the plan has hit some snags, but remains on schedule, a spokesperson for the ministry told The Jerusalem Post. Tour operators could not apply to have their groups approved for entry until Wednesday, when the ministry opened an online form at 10:00 a.m.

The plan was for up to 20 groups to be accepted, but that 40 groups would be allowed to apply online, so that alternates would be available if some had to cancel. Within nine minutes, the maximum number had been reached, and the application process was closed, the spokesperson said.

The application process was “a total balagan [mess],” said Rachel Spigelman, an executive at Amiel Tours. “We had a very short time to apply, and we got a message that the first 20 had already been approved before we had applied. It was frustrating.”

The winning tour operators were expected to be notified on Thursday and will meet with government officials to clarify the rules for the pilot trips.

All visitors must be innocualated with a Health Ministry-approved vaccine and must come from countries that meet its requirements. In addition, the tourists participating in the pilot must show two PCR tests – one up to 72 hours before entering Israel and one upon arrival. The pilot program will continue through June 15.

The late start will make it impossible for groups to start coming by this Sunday, but the ministry spokesperson was optimistic that groups could be ready to arrive in the first week of June.

“Given the current security situation, the small delay shouldn’t really be a problem anyway,” she said. “In any case, the fact that the enrollment filled up so quickly, even during this tense period, is a strong show of the resilience of Israel’s tourism market.”

TOURISM MINISTER Orit Farkash-Hacohen expressed similar confidence. “This situation will not last long,” she said in a press release. “Therefore, I am glad that the many efforts have borne fruit, and the pilot for bringing vaccinated tourists into Israel has been launched and received such a positive response. I worked to ensure that the pilot for incoming vaccinated tourist groups would not be postponed, because of its importance.

“At the same time, the ministry’s staff is already working on preparations for the next, broader phase of tourists entering Israel,” she said.

The pilot plan for groups does not include educational tours such as Taglit-Birthright groups, which are approved in a separate mechanism by a different government ministry.

Meanwhile, another Tourism Ministry official returning from the Arabian Travel Market conference in Dubai this week told the Post that interest in visiting Israel is sky-high.

“This was the first time Israel ever participated in the Dubai tourism fair, so it was a historic moment,” said Ksenia Kobiakov, the ministry’s director of new market development. “We had back-to-back meetings all day, and a lot of people visited our booth seeking more information. There is huge interest, and even people from other Arab countries like Saudi Arabia wanted to know more.”

Even the fighting in Gaza didn’t dampen the enthusiasm, Kobiakov said. “In most meetings, it wasn’t even raised – and when it was, they would say that they expect that it will soon be over, and that’s it.”

Kobiakov noted that Etihad and flydubai already offer flights between the United Arab Emirates and Israel, and that the country’s third airline, Emirates, is set to begin a service within a few weeks. A huge advertisement for Israel has already been placed in Dubai on one of the largest digital billboards in the world, a 175-meter screen seen by 750,000 drivers a day, she added.

“The Tourism Ministry sees the UAE as a top-brand market,” Kobiakov said. “We have very big plans.”

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