Believers in Israel’s travel industry feeling blow of crippling government restrictions

Outside of Ben Gurion International Airport (Photo: Darya Short)

Travel companies owned by Israeli Messianic Jews and Christians are reeling from the effects of drastic and industry-devastating measures taken by the government to control the spread of the latest coronavirus (COVID-19) in the Holy Land.

“Today I am in the office and it feels I am living inside a movie,” said Eduardo Silveira, CEO of The Land Tours. “Today one enters a hotel and it seems that it is an abandoned territory, it is as if we were at war with no physical destruction. We are facing an invisible enemy.”

The Israeli government’s decision to place anyone entering the country — including tourists — into a 14-day quarantine has resulted in a crippling blow to the tourism industry. Cancellations are pouring in, hotels are closing down and travel-related companies are being shuttered. 

According to a report in CTech, already some 1,300 employees have been laid off with 10,000 more layoffs pending, some 14,000 employees are on involuntary unpaid vacation while the Israeli tourism industry is looking at a 12-billion-shekel loss this year.

“The tourism industry has collapsed,” Silveira said. “In a week we have lost millions of shekels, there are no tourists in the country, it is the first time in history that the tourist industry is in this situation.”

Travel companies run by Messianic Jewish and Christians, tour guides and even hotels such as Gilgal in Tel Aviv and Christian guest houses around the country are not immune to the crisis. Current directives are meant to last until at least the end of March, but no one is certain when restrictions will be lifted.

David Katz, who is the assistant general manager at Sar-El, one of the country’s leading tour companies, said in his 25 years in the business, he has never seen anything like this. 

“We’ve been through this too many times — intifadas, the Second Gulf War, a number of Gaza incursions, but this is even more impacting than the second intifada. During the Second Gulf War, flights did stop so that was impacting then. At that time we were only two employees and now we have 120.” 

Like many companies, Sar-El — owned by a Messianic Jew with employees from every sector of Israeli society including secular, religious and Messianic Jews, Muslims and Christians — has had to send many staffers on unpaid leave. The government is offering unemployment benefits for employees such as Sar-El’s, not just in the tourism sector. 

All of the company’s tours are canceled for March while most April tours are in the process of canceling due to lingering uncertainty. Sar-El still has eight buses full of tourists in the country, where they are confined to their hotel rooms according to Ministry of Health requirements.

“That is what is grievous to me,” Katz said. “I think there should be a little more leniency, at least give them two hours a day to go out and see the sites. But that is not my decision.”

One tour guide who had two groups coming up with Sar-El, and also works for other agencies, only started this job in September and is already now facing months of no work.

“This obviously means a loss of my income,” Darya Short told KNI. “I know for a fact that the next four tours I was supposed to be doing are canceled. This week I was supposed to have a tour. So, we are talking about March, April, May and even June — my work for the next four months at least is being impacted.”

Twins Tours, a company run by two Arab Christian brothers, Andre and Tony Moubarak, is also working through the challenges, dealing with cancelations or postponements for March.

“With upcoming groups in the summer and fall we are hopeful that these groups will be allowed to travel,” the company said in a statement. “We will, of course, wait and see if travel restrictions are lifted. With good wisdom, we will also comply and implement the travel recommendations suggested to ensure the health and safety of all who travel with us once we are permitted to return to Israel.”

The impact on the tourism industry came in waves over the past few months. Israel slowly began placing restrictions on travelers entering the country in early February, first on visitors from China and other Asian countries, then Italy and eventually from all of Europe. That led to a general requirement last week that anyone entering the country sit in quarantine for 14 days before venturing around the country. 

This latest measure has effectively shut down travel to the Holy Land, ahead of one of the busiest seasons of both Passover and Easter.

The trickle-down effects impact all of the Israeli economy. Car rental companies, souvenir shops, cab drivers, and even hotel suppliers in industries such as the food sector will suffer big losses as well.

Nevertheless, Katz remains positive that the situation will turn around. Many groups are currently rebooking future tours while everyone is praying the crisis ends sooner rather than later.

“We are optimistic,” he said. “We’ve been through these things before and, as we say in Israel, ‘We survived Pharaoh, we will survive this as well.’”

Appropriate words as Passover draws near.