As global travel and tourism take off again, Israel’s skies remain mostly closed
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Inside storyArguments flare over how soon Israel can reconnect to world

As global travel and tourism take off again, Israel’s skies remain mostly closed

As Europe reopens, some Israeli travel agents are baffled government isn’t launching airport-based testing so they can be part of the resurgence

An airport staff cleaner in the empty arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport on June 12, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
An airport staff cleaner in the empty arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport on June 12, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

As flights restarted in parts of Europe Monday, the prospect of Israel’s skies reopening is receding — and some travel agents are expressing bafflement that the government isn’t seizing on the possibility of airport-based tests to safely admit tourists.

The European Union has earmarked today for the reopening of borders and gradual resumption of international tourism. France, Germany, Switzerland and several other countries are easing travel restrictions and welcoming tourists from some countries. Outside of Europe, too, steps are being taken to host summer visitors. On Thursday, Hong Kong Disneyland will reopen.

Israel had hoped to start welcoming foreign vacationers from select countries on July 1, but the current spike in coronavirus cases put the kibosh on that plan, Foreign Ministry spokesman Lior Hayat told The Times of Israel.

It will “take a few more weeks to know” when tourists will be permitted, Hayat said, adding that just a week ago he had expected the July 1 target to be met.

Sigal Sadetzky speaks during a press conference about the coronavirus at the Health Ministry in Jerusalem on May 31, 2020. (Flash90)

On Sunday, Sigal Sadetzky, the head of health services at the Health Ministry, told Knesset lawmakers that Israel was seeing the start of a second wave. She said: “We had a long period of more than two weeks with a calm of less than 20 infections a day, and it started to climb and climb, and now we are seeing close to 200 new sick people a day.”

There are currently precious few flights to and from Israel, and the incoming tourism industry is on hiatus. The Health Ministry says non-Israelis still may not enter the country, except in special circumstances.

Israel has been in talks with Greece, Cyprus and some other countries that are seen as low-risk to discuss the possibility of a so-called travel bubble, but nothing has been finalized.

The empty arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport on June 12, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Travel agents increasingly say that a solution to the problem of COVID-safe tourism is staring the government in the face and it’s letting down the travel industry by failing to deploy it: virus testing at the airport.

Mark Feldman, CEO of Ziontours, is indignant that this isn’t happening. “It angers me tremendously as a citizen and as someone in the  travel industry,” he told The Times of Israel, saying that the country should put its faith in tests to admit people from everywhere. “We have to trust the tests — they are the only solution for restarting tourism,” he said.

Mark Feldman, CEO of Ziontours (courtesy of Mark Feldman)

Feldman cited Vienna Airport, which has started offering tests for incoming tourists — from a limited list of permitted countries — as showing that, in principle, testing can be used to admit tourists without quarantine.

But some health experts warn that the power of testing is overestimated. “Testing cannot solve all of our issues, because there are problems of false positives and false negatives,” said Nadav Davidovitch, a member of the National Security Council’s pandemic policy task force, and head of the School of Public Health at Ben Gurion University of the Negev.

Austria opened to tourists from seven countries in June 4 and is opening to most of Europe Tuesday. It has a 14-day quarantine requirement, but waives it if people take an airport swab test, wait three hours for results, and are found negative. It also accepts medical certificates from the point of departure.

Feldman and some other agents are looking to Vienna and saying that this model would enable Israel to retain its quarantine requirement for anybody who can’t generate a negative test, while allowing many tourists to enter without a stint in self-isolation.

JJ Jonah, CEO of Israel Maven Tours, said that he had no criticism of the policy barring tourists until now, but thinks the opening of skies elsewhere must spur Israel to change. “Now that the world is opening up, we should follow,” he said. “If the world is starting to travel we need to do the same, with precautions.”

JJ Jonah, CEO of Israel Maven Tours (courtesy of JJ Jonah)

Jonah doesn’t feel that the country is ready yet for group travel, but in his view individuals and families should be welcomed and airport testing should be employed in order to admit people without quarantine.

“If the airport is the only obstacle, then if Vienna’s model of testing people at the airport works we should do that,” he said.

But some agents are against testing incoming tourists upon arrival. “I don’t believe in doing testing at Ben Gurion Airport, it’s not practical,” Amnon Ben-David, CEO and president of Eshet Incoming, told The Times of Israel.

He said: “If you had a whole plane with 380 people, do you keep them at the airport for three hours? It’s only a theoretical solution, it’s not going to work.” He said that one positive test in a planeload of people would, by current Israeli standards, put many if not all passengers in quarantine, which he said wasn’t sustainable.

Ben-David wants to see travel return to normal, test-free, as soon as possible, but said that as long as the government wants screening, it must be a precondition at the point of origin. People should present health checks as they depart, as they do with visas, he said.

Magen David Adom medical workers take samples to test for the novel coronavirus in South Tel Aviv on June 2, 2020. (Miriam Alster/Flash90)

In Israel’s official deliberations on the issue, there is still disagreement, the pandemic task force’s Davidovitch told The Times of Israel. “There was a discussion, so far not solved, about testing — before or after arrival,” he said.

Hayat said that the Foreign Ministry and various other ministries and official bodies are talking to the Health Ministry about plans to restart air travel, and are discussing various possibilities, including airport-based testing. “We’re talking… about it, but the final decision is theirs,” he said, adding that the conclusion will be based on health assessments.

Health experts are divided regarding the best course of action.

Liat Edry-Botzer prepares samples for serological testing at the Tel Aviv University lab run by Mordechai Gerlic and Ariel Munitz

Ariel Munitz, an expert in testing from Tel Aviv University, said that no new science is needed to introduce fast-turnaround testing at airports, and that he favors a quicker restart to international tourism. “All the solutions are here,” he commented. “It’s only a matter of organizing manpower and getting into a work flow.”

He noted that standard swab tests are around 70 percent reliable, but said that they could be paired with serological tests, which are conducted on blood samples, to boost accuracy. “It would be safe to assume if someone comes out negative in serological testing he’s most likely negative,” said Munitz, who is overseeing a serological testing program for IDF soldiers.

Davidovitch said that his concerns about the accuracy of testing mean that only people from countries with low coronavirus incidence — so-called green countries — should be allowed to Israel quarantine-free.

People from these countries could even be admitted without coronavirus tests or quarantine, as the risk is low, he said.

However, he stated that other countries pose too large a danger to rely on test results. “The current situation with a rise in Israel means we should start with a pilot of just green countries,” he argued, adding that only after this should Israel decide on the best protocols for admission and testing of other tourists.

People who want to move faster, Davidovitch said, “are missing that on the global scale, we are still amidst the worst days of the coronavirus.”

Joshua Davidovich contributed to this report.

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