Gutted by pandemic, tourism to Israel saw 81% drop in 2020

Reviewing a year of crisis, Tourism Ministry expresses hope for spring resurgence and announces plans to revitalize the industry

An American tourist wearing a face mask tours at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on February 27, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
An American tourist wearing a face mask tours at the Western Wall in the Old City of Jerusalem on February 27, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

Israel registered a drop of some 81 percent in tourism in 2020 compared to the previous year amid the coronavirus pandemic, the Tourism Ministry said Thursday as it summarized a year that has ravaged the industry.

The number of tourists that entered Israel over the course of the year stood at 850,000. In March, as the pandemic ramped up in Israel and around the world, Jerusalem banned nearly all foreigners from entering the country — a step at the time considered extreme but later also taken by many other countries as the virus raged across the globe.

The action effectively shut down the industry, and the government has yet to lift the restriction.

“The year 2020, which began with optimism for another record-breaking year for incoming tourist arrivals to Israel and a continuation of the momentum of record highs in recent years, ended with the skies closed and a ban on
incoming tourists, for the first time in Israel,” the ministry said.

It said the tourism industry was hardest hit by the pandemic, with nearly 200,000 families affected by the loss of livelihood.

The ministry said that with vaccinations ramping up and hopes growing that Israel will finally emerge from the crisis in the coming months, it was preparing a plan to enable the tourism industry to return, featuring “adaptation to the coronavirus era in all areas covered by the ministry’s activities — marketing, infrastructure and the tourist experience.”

South Korean tourists wear masks as they wait for the departure of their flight at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on February 24, 2020 (Flash90)

It said it hoped tourists would begin returning in the spring.

“We are already working together with the Health Ministry on an exit plan for the tourism industry,” Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen said. “The plan will create certainty and it will operate under the principle that whoever was most affected in previous times will be among the first to open as we exit lockdown.”

Though the industry enjoyed a respite in the spring and summer as internal tourists flooded Israeli hotels instead of traveling abroad, hotels were shut back down as part of a nationwide lockdown imposed in mid-September and have not been reopened.

In November the government briefly approved the formation of so-called “tourist islands” in Eilat and the Dead Sea, allowing hotels and other venues to reopen for internal tourism in those locations, but these were recently canceled as infection rates once again rose throughout the country and a third lockdown was announced.

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