Hoteliers doubt eased tourist rules will make a difference

Operators say new government plan to open borders to foreigners sets too-tight limits on vaccination requirements

Guests at the reception desk in a Tel Aviv hotel, April 27, 2021. (Miriam Alster/ FLASH90)
Guests at the reception desk in a Tel Aviv hotel, April 27, 2021. (Miriam Alster/ FLASH90)

A move by the government to open Israel’s borders to visitors has been met with skepticism by some in the tourism industry, who point out that the scheme’s COVID-19 vaccination requirements greatly limit the list of those who would be granted entry, Reuters reported Sunday.

The vast majority of tourists have effectively been banned from entering Israel since the start of the coronavirus pandemic in March of 2020. The reopening of borders has been delayed numerous times throughout the year, as COVID infections waxed and waned.

Last week the Prime Minister’s Office said ministers agreed to open Israel’s borders from November 1 to tourists who are vaccinated against COVID-19 or have recovered from the disease.

However, there were a number of conditions, such as having received at least one booster shot within the previous six months and that the tourists do not arrive from so-called “red countries,” those with high virus infection rates.

The timeframe means that any would-be tourist whose most recent booster shot was before May 1 would not be able to travel to Israel.

Hotel owners in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Nazareth, and Bethlehem in the West Bank have not seen a marked increase in bookings, according to the report.

Israel Hotel Association CEO Yael Danieli pointed out that many countries have yet to begin administering booster shots to their populations. Whereas Israel pioneered giving third shots to its population in a campaign that began in August, other countries only followed a two-dose vaccination regime.

“How many tourists out in the world have actually gotten boosters or are sitting in that six-month period following their second dose?” she said to Reuters.

A further constraint is that children under the age of 12 are not eligible for vaccination and therefore would not be permitted to enter Israel, even if their parents are, she noted.

Danieli said the government should allow individual tourists to enjoy the same rules that are already in place for small tour groups, which are exempt from the six-month rule, on condition that group members take virus tests every 72 hours during the first two weeks they are in the country.

“We just want to make it easier for tourists, so they come back,” she said. “We can’t say how many will be able to come with these rules.”

Israel’s entry rules also impact the West Bank, as visitors to the area must pass through Israeli border controls.

Joey Canavati, manager of Bethlehem’s Alexander Hotel, told Reuters that although the plans for November are a “great step,” he is not expecting any big change in tourist numbers until next year.

“At the moment, we just want to stop the bleeding, stop digging into our savings,” he said.

Under the new regulations, only tourists who have been vaccinated during the 180 days before they boarded the plane will be allowed to enter Israel. In the case of the Pfizer vaccine, seven days must elapse between the traveler’s second or third shot and entry to Israel. In the case of Moderna, AstraZeneca, Johnson & Johnson (one dose, not two), Sinovac, and Sinopharm, 14 days must elapse.

After announcing the plan last week, the Prime Minister’s Office said the scheme, which must still be approved by the high-level coronavirus cabinet, may be updated to take into consideration any threat posed by fresh variants of the coronavirus. Several cases of the new AY4.2 variant have already been diagnosed in Israel.

Current regulations allowed tourists to begin arriving in organized groups in May, though in a very limited capacity. Additionally, first-degree relatives of Israeli citizens or residents were able to apply for permits to travel to the country.

Under both the current and the new regulations, all travelers to Israel must take a PCR test within 72 hours of their departure and must take a second test when they land at Ben Gurion Airport. Vaccinated travelers must remain in quarantine either for 24 hours or until they receive a negative test result. Those who are not vaccinated must remain in quarantine for 14 days, which can be shortened to seven days with two negative tests, on days 1 and 7.

Israel appears to be at the tail end of its fourth coronavirus wave, as new infections and serious cases have ticked down over the past few weeks.

Tourism numbers dropped 80 percent in 2020, a plunge from record numbers in 2019 that were worth $7.2 billion to the economy.

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