At the end of last February (2020), my heart and Google diary were both full. I had just finished guiding, for the seventh year running, a mission of amazing teens from the tri-state area on the “Write On For Israel” program. We had just spent an amazing time together exploring Israel and its society. We had met with Israeli teens, both Jewish and Arab. We had met with Palestinians and leading thinkers and figures in Israel society from across the religious and political spectrum and really understood that there is so much more than the media perception of this wonderful but complex land. This program was the culmination of two years of classroom studying to prepare them to make the case for Israel on the sometimes hostile North American college campuses. The consensus was that, despite the excellent teaching and preparation outside of Israel, one does not really “get it” until one spends time with Israelis in Israel.
And then the bubble burst. Who knew that that would be the last group I would guide for the next 20 months (and counting)? My diary was packed with groups until the end of the year from the US, Canada, the UK, South Africa and Australia. I was blessed to be doing what I loved. Spreading the light of our special country. My fellow guides of incoming tourism are in a similar situation. We went from packed schedules to an eerie silence that has no end in sight.
My professional colleagues, like me, have put years into preparing for this profession. We all completed the grueling two-year Ministry of Tourism licensing course and many of us have advanced degrees in topics relating to our guiding. I would like to share the words of two of my fellow tour guides. Both of them, Barak and Joel, have been guiding for years, are excellent, passionate and super guides and human beings. Both have families to feed and have given the best years of their lives to our country and to this profession.
It is just heartbreaking to read what is going on in their lives, and indeed in the lives of all of us incoming tourism guides. Their voice is our voice. Barak Berkovich shared his thoughts on his Facebook page recently,
Recently everyone has returned to a work routine in one form or another. Everyone except us, who are engaged in inbound tourism. Out of every ten guides I talk to, at least seven of them has started taking anti-depressant pills. I talk to other guides, all they say is, ‘I can’t do it any longer, how I will bring food to the children? I am afraid of losing my house, If I hear of another closure I’ll jump off the roof (one guide has already unfortunately committed suicide).’ Just today I received the message that all of my groups canceled until the end of the year. We have no government unemployment, no financial help from the state, and no one cares. We are not large but we are a very important group, in my opinion, for the country to have as its representatives in the face of media distortion against Israel. I feel so depressed, so anxious and have such a sense of hopelessness. It’s just so frustrating!
Joel Meyer an English Oleh married to Eginsu Ashete Meyer, an Ethiopian immigrant, who had been guiding for years, until last February, had this to say on his Facebook page:
I love being a tour guide and educator. I love that each day brings new and unanticipated experiences and meaningful conversations. Or at least it did.
I love being challenged by those that I travel and work with and helping others develop and explore their own opinions and views. Unfortunately, since early March 2020 Israel has closed its borders to visitors and the field of incoming travel and tourism has all but disappeared. The economic challenges to tour guides and many others that work with incoming tourism are obvious. After a year and a half and no solution in sight, many people are struggling to survive and some have already slipped below the water (some have left the country in desperation). What is not always seen, but no less important is the emotional impact for so many of losing their livelihood, love, direction and means of expression. Looking at how different countries around the world have found a way to responsibly reopen their borders to travelers, encourage tourism and support the industry – only serves to emphasize that there is another way for governments to act rather than strangle an entire industry and with it those people who depend upon it.
It is this last point that I would like to conclude with, Israel, the “startup nation,” under both the previous and the current government has been unable to get its act together in order to responsibly reopen tourism for incoming fully vaccinated tourists. Other surrounding countries, such as Greece and Italy have managed to figure out safe solutions. The result is that millions of dollars are being spent by tourists who are unable to enter Israel and instead opt for alternative Mediterranean or global destinations. Israel is one of the few countries on the planet Earth that have not managed to figure out a solution to save the incoming tourism industry. There was brief experimental window in June and July this year for groups, which went off flawlessly. Yet the authorities, in their infinite wisdom, slammed that gate shut. The government (Avidgor Lieberman, the Finance Minister) also discontinued financial support to Tour-guides. Surely they must realize that it’s completely unreasonable and cruel to take away the financial support without allowing us to work. The big question is, when will Israel ever reopen for incoming tourism? There are many solutions and options, if there is a will. Incoming tourism is not quite dead, but it is on life-support. Meanwhile thousands of incoming tourism guides, and the entire industry that depend on it, are going through soul-destroying times.