The Slow Sure Return of Tourism in Israel & Beyond

As of late 2019, travel in Israel was booming. A slew of new low-cost flight options from Europe made travel to and from Israel more accessible than ever, and the government’s renewed investments in the tourist sector contributed to 2019 being one of the best years for travel to Israel on record. A staggering 4.55 million tourists flocked to the country, and projections for 2020 were through the roof.

Then, suddenly, everything changed. 

Most people remember where and when they heard the first murmurings about a mysterious pandemic that had begun to spread rapidly from China in late February of 2020. Since then, the world was turned upside down by the biggest global pandemic in recorded history, which effectively brought the modern world grinding to a halt and greatly impacted the lives of most people around the globe. With little information on just how and where the pandemic was spreading, we were all forced into various forms of lockdown and quarantine for large swathes of 2020 and into 2021, with many lives and industries seriously affected by the attempt to control the bewildering spread of this deadly virus. 

It’s probably safe to say that few industries were rocked more radically than travel and tourism. Global travel has taken a hard hit with mass flight cancelations, lockdowns, and a never-ending stream of changing restrictions and regulations for tourists, with some destinations seeing a plummet in tourism of up to 80%. 

With the introduction of vaccines earlier this year, there has been a gradual loosening of restrictions and opening up of countries to tourism. Israel was at the forefront of the global vaccination campaign, blessed with early access and widespread distributions of the Pfizer vaccine as early as January 2021. By the summer, things were looking up, the R-rate was down, and most restrictions were removed. It seemed like international tourists would be allowed back in the country any day. But the spread of the Delta wave put all that on hold again, and had many asking how long it would take for tourism in Israel to return.

Many countries around the world have managed to preserve their tourism industries throughout the pandemic. In the EU, inter-country tourism reached an all-time high as union-wide agreements allowed people in member states to travel. Israelis, who had early vaccine access and many of whom are privileged to have more than one passport, found ways to travel out of Israel throughout the summer. Many have traveled to the US, across Europe, or the hottest new destination, the UAE, now accessible to Israelis thanks to 2020’s Abraham Accords. Even tour packages combining Israel, Jordan, and the UAE were launched. It seemed that much of the world had opened up, at least partially, to tourists. Israel remained stubbornly closed throughout. 

Israeli government officials have also caught up to the realization that the economy can’t be put on hold forever and that industries, including tourism, are going to have to find a way to work around the virus. As more is learned about Covid-19 and measures that can be taken to prevent its spread, airlines and other tourism-related industries have begun to adapt to the health restrictions and the on-again, off-again pace of life. Thankfully, we are beginning to witness the fruits of that realization with an announcement that came just in time for the Jewish New Year. 

Just before the Rosh Hashanah holiday, the Israeli government made a momentous announcement: limited tourist groups will be allowed into the country starting from mid-September. The program allows vaccinated tourist groups and families of 5-30 individuals arriving from non-red countries to travel to Israel through approved tour companies. 

However, the program is limited. And maybe more than a step to open to tourists, a bureaucratic way of saying we are doing something, without really doing anything. Only people who have been vaccinated within the last 6 months will be permitted, meaning that no kids can enter, and with many vaccinated more than 6 months ago, time is ticking. The world is opening up, and learning to live with covid, and Israel is being left behind.

For those who meet the criteria, now  is the perfect time to explore Israel with a multi-day group tour package that takes all the guesswork out of navigating travel arrangements and local regulations. Some special tour packages have been planned especially for Covid times. Or for those who can get a group of five or more together, the time is right to visit the Holy Land. With Israel’s unique access to vaccines and quick response designed to keep the country accessible, the opening to individual tourists is hopefully right around the corner. 

About the Author
Ben Julius is the founder of Tourist Israel, Israel's largest travel website.
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