Tourism in Israel in crisis like never before

COVID-19 has wreaked an unprecedented crisis on Israel’s 6.5 billion dollar a year tourist industry. For those who work in it, the question is, what now?

When your job is other people’s vacation, a crisis of any kind threatens your livelihood. Every year for the last five years has been a record breaking year for tourism in Israel. The ubiquitous expectation among tour operators that 2020 would set a new record, surpassing the 4.5 million tourists and the 23 billion shekels they injected into the economy in 2019, collapsed like a house of cards with the emergence and spread of COVID-19. Most other industries that have been affected by the virus i.e. offices, restaurants, and stores began to feel the squeeze gradually as restrictions inside the country began to tighten in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus. But nearly two weeks ago, Israel closed its borders to foreigners and the tourist industry came to a screeching halt. The tourist industry was among the first to get hit and will probably be among the last to rebound.

For tour operators, this crisis is not like any of the ones that came before. “The closest (in magnitude) was the second Gulf War (2003) when tours did stop all together, but that only lasted a few weeks,” said David Katz. David is the deputy general manager of Sar-el tours, among the biggest tour operators in Israel, serving nearly a million visitors over 27 years; predominantly English speaking Evangelical Christians. David has worked in tourism for 25 years.  “(The recession in 2008) hurt but there were still many who had the means to travel. The three years of the second Intifada were very difficult but every month there were still a few groups or conferences who continued to visit Israel.  During the Gaza conflicts and 2nd Lebanon war, we did lose work but it was temporary. (This is) totally different, The Corona virus is affecting the entire world,” said David. David wouldn’t enumerate exactly how many staff members the company employs or has had to lay off, but in a company that employs dozens of staff members, he said ‘too many’ have had to be laid off, with only a few left working on rebooking canceled trips. 

Pini Peer is the CEO and owner of Fun Time Tours and Travel. “We went from making around 5 million nis per month to zero,” Pini laments. “The company is closed, 65 workers laid off and 40 buses are in storage,” he continued. Pini’s company offers primarily day tours and serviced mostly Europeans on a budget arriving in Israel on low-cost flights from western and eastern Europe. For tour operators like Pini the crisis is especially troubling long term, as tourism is likely to suffer a domino effect. “The end of the low-cost flight era for the foreseeable future means that the people from poorer countries who once were able to afford to come thanks to the low-cost flights won’t be able to afford to travel to Israel anymore,” says Benny Kfir, Chairman of the Israel Tour Guides Association; “This is the end of the low-cost flight,” said Benny. It’s not only the low-cost flights; many services that tourists have come to expect will be affected and it remains to be seen if they will collapse before the tourists begin to flow back in.  “This will affect many (of) the suppliers which serve tourism:  the cab drivers,  Gift shops, farmers who sell tomatoes to the hotels and restaurants, the companies which provide soap and shampoo to the hotels, the laundry services,” says David Katz. Individual tour guides are also pondering their future in the industry. Over 90 tour guides were polled on a facebook group of guides of incoming tourism, they were split down the middle of whether they are considering a career change or if they expect tourism to make a quick rebound and plan to wait it out. 

Benny Kfir expects internal tourism, Israelis traveling in Israel, to be the first branch of tourism that reawakens. “Spain and Italy were common destinations for Israelis, we’ll have to see how they recover, the end of low-cost flights and after being cooped up in quarantine, Israelis will break-out and begin rediscovering Israel,” he said.

Most tour guides can also expect to be eligible for unemployment. “A tour guide, working for a tour operator guiding a bus of tourists is considered a salaried worker as far as the social security office in Israel is concerned, even if they issue a receipt to the tour operator, (and don’t receive a pay stub). “This was one of our biggest victories in recent years and we achieved this understanding with the social security office in 2014 in operation Strong Cliff, which saw a major drop in tourism,” says Benny. A tour guide who owns and operates his own tour bus is considered self-employed and is ineligible for benefits, at least not for the work on his own bus, if he or she works freelance and privately, as many do. For Benny the next frontier in the battle is for benefits to be granted to those guides as well. “We are working with ‘Lahav’, the organization that lobbies on behalf of self-employed workers in Israel to get unemployment benefits for guides that own and operate a tour bus” he continued. The tour operators were in consensus that besides caring for individual workers, the government was not addressing the hit inflicted to the tourist industry. “Tourism will be the last issue governments around the world address, but that’s also understandable,” says Pini Peer. “I think the (Israeli government is) doing as well as they can under the circumstances.  I think that they will need to provide Arnona reductions for Hotels, Restaurants, Tour Operators, and other services, Added David Katz. 

The COVID-19 crisis continues to spread and claim more lives around Israel and the rest of the world. It’s a crisis that we haven’t seen in our lifetimes and for tourism, once the medical issues are addressed, the long road to recovery will begin and it will be a gradual recovery when it does. 


About the Author
Yehuda Liebenson is a tour guide licensed by the Israeli Ministry of Tourism. He is originally from the Chicago-land area, but has lived in Israel for many years and has served in her security forces.
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