The coronavirus has already had a significant impact on our way of life. Around the world people are shunning physical contact, are washing their hands with a new intensity, are weighing up whether or not to step into crowded spaces. And the numbers – coming in from around the globe, drilled down by country, region and city. The numbers of the infected, the numbers of the recovered, and most tragically, the numbers of those who have succumbed to complications from the virus.
These are the figures that are being reported about the disease, but there is increasing awareness of the large numbers of economic victims, among whom are the many people who work in the global tourism industry. Now don’t get me wrong – as someone who works in the industry, I would much rather suffer some temporary economic hardship than have people get sick. I recognise the importance of the attempts to slow the spread of the virus.
However, I do think it’s important to draw attention to this impact, and what we can all do to help. Our country has historically shown how it can pull together at times when we face a military threat. The threat we face now is different, but its impact is huge, and we need once more to show our ability as a nation to support each other.
According to the latest data available from the Ministry of Tourism, the industry employs around 145 000 people – roughly the size of the city of Rehovot. In the space of a few weeks, as a result of increasingly stringent restrictions on who can enter Israel by the Ministry of Health, tourism professionals are faced with wave after wave of cancellations. Again, this is not meant to be a criticism of the government’s actions – I know nothing of public health policy and hope that those in charge of keeping us safe are making the right decisions. But these decisions have had a direct impact on the ability of tens of thousands of people to make a living. And this is in the tourism sector alone –there are many other parts of the economy which are suffering the effects, particularly with yesterday’s decision to cancel gatherings of over 100 people.
Although tourism represents just under 3% of Israel’s GDP, this figure rises significantly when leaving the centre of the country. In areas such as the Galilee, Golan and Negev, where hi-tech jobs are less prevalent, tourism plays a much more important role in the local economies. Furthermore, many of the people who work in tourism are at the weaker end of the economic scale. The hotel room cleaners, bus drivers, shop assistants and waiters. They may be contractors who can ill-afford to be made redundant.
Let’s be clear: tourism is a volatile business globally, and in Israel in particular. When deciding to qualify as a tour guide, I was aware that the major risk was a downturn beyond my control. I thought it would be because of a security flare up. And indeed over the years I have experienced cancellations or slow-downs in enquiries as a result of security tensions. Most recently (and perhaps bizarrely) a leading American university cancelled a trip for April shortly after the Americans assassinated Qasam Soleimani – and Iran threatened to retaliate against Tel Aviv (still waiting on that one).
But what the industry is experiencing now is much much worse. Even during the Gaza wars over the past decade; even during the Second Intifada, people still came. They did not come in large numbers, but they came. I know, because during the Second Intifada, I was one of them.
They came sometimes despite what was happening in the country in order to show solidarity, or to be here for family events. It was a difficult period, but there were still tourists around. People still came for business, or conferences. What we are now experiencing is on a completely different scale. With the recent unprecedented announcement that all arrivals into Israel will be quarantined for two weeks – no one can come even if they want to. I actually can’t believe I just wrote that. In a few hours, no tourist will be able to enter Israel and move around freely. And we have no idea how long this crisis will last.
But…there is something that our fellow Israelis can do to help. Are you frustrated that you’ve had to cancel a planned trip overseas? Replace it with a trip in Israel. Looking for a fun activity for an evening out? Take a tour through your local neighbourhood or your local market. How about a day trip? Go and discover a part of the country you don’t know well or haven’t been for a while. I can guarantee one thing – this country has an incredibly varied and rich collection of historical, natural and religious places to visit. All around Israel are fantastic places to try fresh local food, imbibe great wine and enjoy super company. It doesn’t matter how much you’ve travelled Israel – there is always something new to discover.
It’s a win for everyone – you can have a great experience, and at the same time help support a vital component of the Israeli economy. You can do your research independently, or ask a professional for assistance. It’s at times of crisis that we show our true mettle. This is a call for support for the whole industry, I pray it will be answered.