Israel allows 20 small groups of foreign tourists to enter as virus ebbs

Visitors must be vaccinated or recovered from COVID; virus czar urges Israelis to avoid vacationing abroad; just 12 new cases diagnosed on Saturday

The empty departure halls of Ben Gurion International Airport, April 19, 2021. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)
The empty departure halls of Ben Gurion International Airport, April 19, 2021. (Nati Shohat/FLASH90)

Israel officially opened its borders to small groups of vaccinated or recovered tourists starting Sunday in a pilot program, as the daily new COVID-19 caseload in the country plummeted to just a dozen.

The move came as the Health Ministry issued a serious travel warning for Israelis for the Seychelles, Argentina and Russia due to outbreaks of the coronavirus in those countries and as Israel’s coronavirus czar urged against vacationing abroad altogether.

Ukraine, Ethiopia, Brazil, India, South Africa, Mexico and Turkey are currently considered red countries and travel to and from Israel is banned, unless special government dispensation is given. The ministry on Sunday also warned Israelis against travel to African countries and Central and South America, as well as to Greece, Egypt, Germany, Serbia, Poland, Croatia and Romania.

But some immunized tourist groups from countries with high vaccination rates, such as the United States, UK and Germany, will soon be allowed into Israel under a government program.

In the first stage of the foreign tourism program — until June 15 — 20 groups of 5-30 tourists will be approved to enter Israel from a handful of countries, according to Reuters. Another 20 tour groups will be placed on standby for additional openings.

The plan was officially in effect as of Sunday. But since registration only began last week, “it is unlikely that the first groups will arrive before the beginning of June,” a Tourism Ministry spokesperson told Reuters.

Travelers at Ben Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv on April 18, 2021. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

To curb the spread of COVID, foreign tourists will be required to take a PCR coronavirus test before boarding a plane to Israel. Upon arrival, they will have to take both a PCR test and a serological test, which proves the existence of antibodies.

At first, only tourist groups will be allowed to enter the country and they will be accompanied by vaccinated guides and drivers. Israel plans to expand entry for tourists in the coming months, and potentially welcome individual tourists in July.

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 in January.

Separately, Israel’s coronavirus czar on Sunday urged Israelis not to vacation abroad for the time being.

Coronavirus czar Nachman Ash at Ben Gurion Airport on March 1, 2021. (Tomer Neuberg/Flash90)

“I think it’s not yet the time for that, since the infections in the world are high in many places, including Europe,” Nachman Ash told the Ynet news site. “The danger of getting infected there is very high, including for the vaccinated. Occasionally we see vaccinated people who arrive from abroad with new variants, so it’s worth holding off on these trips.”

Israel’s coronavirus caseload has plummeted due to its successful vaccination campaign, which has seen over 5.1 million of its 9 million citizens fully vaccinated. On Saturday, just 12 new cases were diagnosed, in keeping with the lower testing levels over the weekends. There are currently 511 active coronavirus cases in Israel, with 60 people in serious condition, according to the Health Ministry. The death toll since the start of the pandemic is 6,402.

Ash on Sunday also backed the vaccination of children and teenagers aged 12-15 and said health officials would likely make a decision on the move in the coming days.

The US Food and Drug Administration earlier this month declared that the Pfizer vaccine is safe and offers strong protection for younger teens based on testing of more than 2,000 US volunteers aged 12 to 15.

“Personally, I think we need to vaccinate children aged 12 to 15 against the coronavirus,” Ash said. “I hope we’ll make the decision in the coming days.”

In this Jan. 7, 2021, photo, an Israeli military paramedic prepares a Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine to be administered at a medical center in Ashdod, southern Israel. (AP Photo/Tsafrir Abayov)

“We want to deeply examine the connection between the vaccine and an inflammation of the heart muscle. There are some cases that have raised suspicions about this,” he added. “We will check this in depth and then make a decision.”

An internal Health Ministry report has flagged a possible link between the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine and heart inflammation. Out of more than 5 million people vaccinated in Israel, there were 62 recorded cases of myocarditis in the days after the shot, the draft report said, according to Hebrew media. It found that 56 of those cases came after the second shot and most of the affected were men under 30.

Channel 12 reported on Saturday that Israel is expected to begin giving COVID-19 vaccines to children aged 12-15 in the next two weeks.

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