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Gov’t adviser: ‘Truly don’t know’ if travel ban will end in time for winter tourism

Ran Balicer suggests government will set high bar before skies open, while head of travel agency says industry in tatters and Israel ‘lost whatever goodwill we had from tourists’

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Air China flight crew members in hazmat suits walk through the arrivals area at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, Nov. 30, 2021 (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
Air China flight crew members in hazmat suits walk through the arrivals area at Los Angeles International Airport in Los Angeles, Nov. 30, 2021 (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

Many thousands of Israel-bound tourists and the entire Israeli travel industry are wondering how, exactly, their fate will be determined. Will the Omicron-induced shutdown to tourists end soon, in time for what would be the first major influx of visitors in nearly two years?

“The most responsible and true answer is ‘I truly do not know,’” Prof. Ran Balicer, chairman of the government’s COVID-19 advisory team, told The Times of Israel on Wednesday, when asked if the travel closure will be extended. “Some critical data can be expected in the coming seven to ten days. We will take it from there.”

Hanukkah trips by Diaspora Jews were canceled en masse as a two-week travel ban kicked in this weekend, just before the start of the Jewish festival, and Mark Feldman, CEO of Ziontours, a large Jerusalem travel agency, said he feels the tourism industry has been left “in tatters — once again.”

Now, his industry is hoping that the ban will be lifted rather than renewed on December 13, and it will get to welcome Christian tourists celebrating Christmas as well as many others, including Diaspora Jews, who want to spend the winter holiday season in the Holy Land.

Health Minister Nitzan Horowitz stressed on Tuesday that tourism ban is “temporary.” Addressing the closure, which was enacted for 14 days from Sunday night at midnight, he said: “We will not extend it automatically, beyond what is required.”

But when Balicer tried to define, during a press briefing on Tuesday, what bar authorities are setting for the reopening of borders to tourists, he suggested it would be a high one.

“I think we will need to have some clarity before we will be able to change this policy,” he said, elaborating that this would mean either reassurance that the Omicron threat is limited or that cases are being well tracked and traced abroad.

Professor Ran Balicer, head of innovation at Clalit, Israel’s biggest health services provider, in Tel Aviv on June 10, 2020 (EMMANUEL DUNAND / AFP)

“This clarity could stem from sound scientific information that tells us we need not worry as much from this emerging variant,” Balicer said. “So this could be one thing that will drive us to change this policy.

“Another [possibility] would be a higher level of clarity on local dissemination patterns in many countries. Right now we know that our colleagues in other countries are not able to fully track and know which of their population is currently carrying [Omicron], or to have a clear view of local transmission… they do not have practical means for accounting for the full level of local transmission to allow us a more gradual [approach] which is what we would like.”

Balicer suggested that as specific countries show that they have Omicron carriers identified and monitored, Israel could consider readmitting tourists from those places. But such a challenge is in the hands of health authorities abroad, and Balicer offered no timeline for it being met.

An American pilgrim walks to the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in the Old City of Jerusalem, Nov. 30, 2021(AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

“With this opacity of information about local transmission, it’s difficult to have a differential approach and we have to take this blanket approach for now,” Balicer stated. “The data from different countries could become another driving force in changing our policy in to a more specific one.”

In the travel industry, spirits are low. The uncertainty has left Feldman “despondent” — hoping that the travel ban is lifted, but feeling that much has already been lost.

“I feel I go through the same nightmare over and over again,” he said. “We reacted to [Omicron] as if the sky is falling. We lost lots and lots of people who were flying out for Hanukkah. And we’ve lost whatever goodwill we had from tourists abroad — it dissipated in a minute.

“We now have no choice but to hold our breath and pray that the skies will be opened up,” he said.

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