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New rules to ease tourist visits coming by month’s end, health official says

Facing criticism for restricting tourism from ‘green’ countries, Health Ministry deputy chief says new plan will allow controlled entry of small groups

Passengers seen at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on August 13, 2020. (Flash90)
Passengers seen at the Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on August 13, 2020. (Flash90)

Israel’s deputy health chief told lawmakers on Monday that a framework for allowing tourists into the country from countries with low rates of infection would be presented by the end of the month.

The news could mean the beginning of a recovery from pandemic-induced collapse that has gripped the tourism industry since March.

“By the end of the month there will be a framework for tourists to enter in controlled ‘capsules’ [small groups] from ‘green’ countries,” or countries with low infection rates, Health Ministry Deputy Director General Itamar Grotto told the Knesset State Control Committee on Monday.

The news comes after the Health Ministry was criticized for continued restrictions on tourists entering the country — even from low-infection countries from which Israelis are allowed to return without quarantine.

Health Ministry Deputy Director General Itamar Grotto at a press conference about the coronavirus, May 29, 2020. (Screen capture: Facebook)

Yossi Patael, head of the tour company trade association that came up with the capsule proposal, welcomed the announcement as “tremendous and important good news for many periphery towns,” which rely heavily on tourism from abroad.

The Health Ministry will offer more details to the public at a planned Monday evening press conference, the ministry said in a statement Monday.

Grotto also told MKs the ministry was advancing efforts to produce an instant-response coronavirus test that would dramatically lower the bureaucratic obstacles faced by those who want to travel.

“We see a very good chance for fast alternative tests [to be developed] with on-the-spot results. Israel is at the forefront of development efforts for a breathalyzer test,” Grotto said.

The government formally announced the start of its “open skies” policy on Sunday, relaxing restrictions on travel to three countries, Bulgaria, Croatia and Greece, and permitting more flights to take off from Ben Gurion Airport.

A man is tested by a healthcare worker for the coronavirus at a drive-through testing center in Tel Aviv on July 6, 2020. (AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner)

Sunday saw some 5,000 Israelis board flights at Ben Gurion, Airports Authority director Yaakov Ganot said at the committee meeting.

A small number were prevented from boarding, he said, as “the rules and the checks they need to bring with them are not clear to everyone. This morning, 21 people were not allowed onto a flight to Greece because they brought the results of their [coronavirus] test only in Hebrew.”

The new policy allows quarantine-free travel to the countries included in the agreement, but travelers must carry English-language test results showing they are not carrying the virus. Travelers must also fill out a health declaration available on the Health Ministry’s website.

Ben Gurion Airport has opened a drive-in testing facility at the airport itself for passengers who are unable to get tested through their health funds.

The empty arrivals hall at Ben Gurion International Airport on June 12, 2020 (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The airport is still operating at a tiny fraction of its capacity, with an average of eight flights arriving and ten lifting off every hour, down from some 48 per hour before the pandemic.

Despite officials’ best efforts, a broader reopening of air travel was still a long way off, Asher Shalmon, the Health Ministry’s director of international relations, told lawmakers.

“Our problem is the number of new cases per day. To open our skies we’ll have to reach the bar of the European Union, or 25 cases per million residents. We’re at about 200, very far from that,” Shalmon said.

According to Health Ministry figures as of mid-day Monday, 93,691 Israelis have tested positive for the virus since the pandemic reached Israel in February. There are now 398 Israelis in serious condition from the virus, 113 of them on ventilators. The death toll since the start of the pandemic has reached 690.

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