Government approves $85 million stimulus package for tourism sector

Finance, tourism ministries announce aid for ravaged hotels, to allow them to function without vital income from foreign tourists

Hotels on Tel Aviv's coastline are seen from Jaffa on March 26, 2020 (Gili Yaari /Flash90)
Hotels on Tel Aviv's coastline are seen from Jaffa on March 26, 2020 (Gili Yaari /Flash90)

The government announced a stimulus package Monday for Israel’s ailing tourism sector to help hotels reopen and function without the income they normally receive from hosting foreign tourists.

The aid package will total NIS 300 million ($85 million), the Finance Ministry said in a statement.

The tourism industry, which employs some 80,000 people and contributes some 3 percent to the gross national product, has been gutted by the virus, with hotels and tourist sites shut until last week and air travel slowed down to a trickle as foreign citizens are still largely banned from entering the country.

Finance Minister Israel Katz and Tourism Minister Asaf Zamir met representatives of hotel workers and managers Monday morning, the statement said, and heard about the difficulties they have faced due to the unprecedented near-100% drop in non-Israelis arriving in the country.

“Due to the fact that about 50% of hotel guests in normal times are [foreign] tourists, hotels have been experiencing difficulties beyond other sectors,” the statement said.

Blue and White MK Asaf Zamir at the Knesset in Jerusalem on May 14, 2019. (Hadas Parush/Flash90)

The aid is meant to help hotels function in the coming months for Israeli vacationers, as tourists aren’t likely to be allowed in anytime soon.

“Tourism is an integral part of Israel’s economy and it is very important to me,” said Katz. “This step is another aspect of returning the economy to normal operations and to growth.”

Zamir, a member of Benny Gantz’s Blue and White party, thanked Likud’s Katz for his “immediate action” and urged the quick restoration of the tourism sector.

Israel’s skies have been largely shut since mid March after the country banned foreigners from entering and imposed a two-week quarantine on Israelis who had been abroad, essentially shuttering the tourism industry.

Some hotels have reopened, but apart from during the Shavuot festival last week have been relatively empty despite lowered prices, which has dealt them a significant financial blow.

According to a Channel 12 news report Sunday, the head of the Israel Airports Authority has asked the Health Ministry to allow the immediate resumption of flights to prevent “potentially irreversible damage” to the tourism industry.

Yaakov Ganot was said to have told outgoing Health Ministry Director-General Moshe Bar Siman-Tov in a letter that a framework should be drawn up to allow travel between Israel and countries designated as “green countries,” i.e., with a low rate of coronavirus infection.

General Manager of the Airports Authority, Yaakov Ganot, during the Public Inquiries Committee meeting at the Knesset, on June 24, 2014 (Flash 90)

The letter noted that Israel’s geographical location, with few land links to neighbors, meant that air travel was of the utmost importance for the tourism industry.

“Failure to make a decision [will mean] the elimination of the airline and tourism industry for the summer season, and potentially irreversible damage,” Ganot said.

Israeli officials have in recent weeks debated allowing in travelers from five countries — Greece, Cyprus, the Seychelles, Georgia and Montenegro. Talks are also underway with Austria about adding it to the list.

The plan, which has not yet received final approval, would have a pilot stage over the summer during which officials would carefully track the effects of an open-border policy from the five nations, all of which have a very low rate of infection for the virus causing the COVID-19 pandemic.

The empty arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport, near Tel Aviv, April 12, 2020. (Flash90)

Despite new virus cases mostly dwindling, Ben Gurion Airport, Israel’s main gateway to the world, remains on emergency footing, with only a few flights in and out of the country daily.

Israel has largely brought the virus under control in the country and has lifted most lockdown restrictions, despite a renewed small-scale outbreak in recent days centered at schools. However, most foreigners are still barred from coming in and Israelis, or permanent residents, must quarantine for 14 days after returning.

Epidemiological research conducted in Israel has shown that a majority of cases in the country resulted from incoming travel from the United States.

Earlier this month, National Security Council chief Meir Ben-Shabbat cautioned the government against relaxing Israel’s strict border controls, saying that still-high rates of coronavirus infection overseas posed an ongoing threat to Israel. Ben-Shabbat sent a letter to senior government officials noting that enforcement of existing regulations was of extreme importance if Israel wanted to hold on to its achievement in suppressing the virus, Channel 12 reported.

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