Judging by the questions, there is still pent-up demand for tourism to Israel from the Southeast U.S., and the sooner the better, according to many prospective travelers.
But foreigners looking to attend bat and bar mitzvahs, wander the Negev desert, pilgrimage to the Temple Mount or walk the old city of Jerusalem will have to wait a little longer, a tourism official at the Israeli Consulate General in Atlanta said during one in a series of webinars the consulate is hosting to keep its community informed.
The country of 8 million has been lauded for its aggressive moves to contain COVID-19, from enacting a mandatory quarantine March 10 to closing off to foreigners March 18 and instituting a nationwide shelter-in-place order the following day.
“You could not walk more than 100 meters from your house or your apartment,” said Yael Golan, the Israel Ministry of Tourism‘s director and consul for the Southern U.S. at the consulate in Atlanta.
That quick, unified response flattened the curve of the virus, but it also halted tourist arrivals, which had almost doubled in four years.
“We were expecting almost 4.5 million travelers to experience Israel in 2020. COVID hit, and we went from growth over growth to zero tourism,” Ms. Golan said.
Now, domestic tourism is beginning to restart, with hotels being allowed to reopen if they can adhere to strict public-health guidelines. Foreigners, however, remain barred from entry except in special cases, and even Israeli citizens must prove upon arrival that they have made personal arrangements to ride out a mandatory 14-day quarantine period, as hotels can no longer be used for this purpose.
Ms. Golan couldn’t speculate on when Israel might once again welcome foreigners, other than to say September would be the earliest. She advised anyone with trips planned before then to go ahead and push back to 2021.
But that didn’t stop those on the call from pressing for a timeline on when Israel’s newly formed coalition government might lean toward reopening.
“As much as we would love to open tomorrow, we would rather wait a bit longer than make a rash decision,” Ms. Golan said, adding later: “I would love to give you a definite answer, but I still don’t have one.”
Israel has logged 18,355 COVID-19 cases overall, with more than 15,000 patients having recovered and 299 fatalities. The country began relaxing its lockdown in May, using geotagging technology to track case exposure and reopening schools.
More than 140 schools were closed again this week as new COVID-19 outbreaks emerged, and as new daily infections approached 200 Monday, the health minister warned that strict adherence to guidelines like mask wearing and social distancing was the only way to wipe out the virus.
Ms. Golan said the tourism ministry has held off on promoting the country’s charms during the pandemic, but it is already making plans to market its “open spaces.” The national parks authority has opened 20 parks under a pilot program that also includes a new online reservation system. Showcasing outdoor destinations like the fortress of Masada (also a national park) and the Negev desert will be key as visitors hesitate to spend too much time indoors.
Israel is a tourism “island,” accessed mainly by air, but with a diverse array of cultural, religious and historic sites as well as a large diaspora that enable it to rely less heavily on summer travel than other Mediterranean destinations, Ms. Golan said.
She praised American groups who decided to delay rather than cancel their trips to Israel, welcoming the economic boost to the travel sector.
“If people would have canceled … their bookings then the entire industry would have collapsed,” she said. The deposit money in many cases has kept tour operators afloat, and it also has the effect of solidifying the eventual trip in travelers’ minds.
“Securing the deposit, securing the payment, you are promising yourselves the trip you’ve been planning for the next year,” she said.
Still, the situation is fluid. Other destinations like New Zealand, which announced this week that it had eliminated the coronavirus within its borders, have hinted they could remain closed to foreigners at least through the end of 2020.
The consulate, which was one of the first in Atlanta to hold a virtual session addressing the COVID-19 outbreak on Facebook Live, is hosting another webinar June 17 on Pandemics and Jewish Ethics.
Watch the tourism webinar embedded on the consulate’s Facebook page: