Some 300 people from the tourism industry held a protest at Ben Gurion Airport Monday against COVID-19 measures that they say are throttling their sector while no state-funded compensation is being offered to cover losses.
Israel last month closed off entry to foreign nationals in a bid to slow the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant of the coronavirus. The rule has remained in place while a list of so-called “red” countries to which Israelis are banned from visiting has grown, also impacting the travel industry.
Tour organizers and guides, bus operators, hotel workers, and staff from local attractions participated in the protest at the entrance to the country’s international hub.
They demanded compensation from the government for their lost business.
There were confrontations with police when some protesters sat down in the approach road to the airport, blocking the cars of travelers arriving to catch flights abroad.
Some protesters held up signs reading “Switch jobs,” a message directed at Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, who said during a Sunday cabinet meeting that tourism workers should find new jobs because rules introduced by the government would be so damaging to their industry.
Other demonstrators held signs noting that Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s wife Galit is vacationing in the Maldives, a trip that drew criticism in light of the crackdown on international travel and the premier urging Israelis against going abroad.
One of the organizers of the protest, a tour guide identified only as Yoav, told the Walla news site that “Liberman doesn’t understand tourism.”
He noted that many are unable to survive on internal tourism because it is only active on weekends.
Yoav said he has run into financial difficulties because of the situation and demanded that compensation be offered to the industry.
“I have a profession, I want to work in it and I can work in it but the government decided to shut it down,” he said. “Naftali Bennett, you decided to shut it down, so pay for it.”
At his Yisrael Beytanu party’s weekly faction meeting at the Knesset on Monday, Liberman acknowledged that his remark was uncalled for.
“It could be that my words were not so appropriate, but the data is correct,” he said, pointing out that in the year before the coronavirus pandemic 4.5 million tourists visited the country compared to just 376,000 this year.
“Even if you aren’t the finance minister, you can understand that there will not be four and half million tourists next year,” Liberman said.
He said he hoped the government would put together an aid package for the tourism industry this week, which will include tens of millions of shekels aimed at retraining programs.
“Retraining is the right way forward,” Liberman said.
Amid the rise of the Omicron COVID-19 variant late last month, the government took the far-reaching steps of shuttering its borders to noncitizens for two weeks. On Thursday evening, Bennett ordered the directive be extended an additional 10 days.
Explaining the decision on Sunday, Bennett said, “We want to delay [Omicron’s] entry into the country through the restrictions at Ben Gurion Airport, and, at the same time, take advantage of these precious days to increase everyone’s immunity. We are not protected enough at the moment.
“Two weeks ago, we decided to tighten restrictions on entry into the country, and there were those who said we were going too far, but we see now that we were not going too far at all,” he said as he opened the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. “The Omicron [variant] is indeed worrying. Europe is entering the holiday season under significant restrictions and lockdowns in some countries.”
Meanwhile, the list of banned countries was updated to include the United Kingdom and Denmark, the Health Ministry announced Sunday evening.
Health Ministry Nitzan Horowitz said additional countries would be classified as “red” in the coming days, but stressed that the government does not currently plan to bar international travel entirely.
He also urged Israelis to refrain from non-essential travel.
“Whoever is planning to travel abroad at this time needs to know that, upon their return, they are likely to go into full quarantine because the country will be declared a red country,” Nachman Ash, the ministry’s director-general, said during a briefing.
Under new quarantine rules approved Sunday by a Knesset committee, Israelis coming from “red” countries must isolate at a state-run facility for at least 10 days. However, they can be released to their homes to complete their quarantines if they test negative for Omicron.
According to the latest Health Ministry figures, 223 coronavirus infections were confirmed Saturday, with 0.63 percent of tests coming back positive. The number of serious cases has recently ticked back above 100, days after dropping below that mark for the first time in four months.
The death toll remained at 8,210, with no fatalities since last Monday.
A total of 6,400,940 Israeli have received a first coronavirus vaccine, with 5,789,014 of them having also received a second shot and 4,120,329 of them having received a third.