HOLY LAND - After months of total closure, bringing the tourism industry to its knees, both in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories, a gradual reopening to travelers is taking shape with groups of between 5 and 30 people being allowed to enter Israel on organized trips from September 19, 2021.
If the conditions of entry into Israel still require a certain motivation from travelers, for the thousands of families who usually live from tourism in the Holy Land, this news, so long-awaited since the beginning of the pandemic, comes after many disappointed hopes and does not yet announce the massive return of pilgrims and tourists.
In May 2021, after a vaccination blitz, Israel timidly reopened its borders to traveling groups, after air traffic had only slightly resumed a few weeks earlier.
Respecting an extremely restrictive sanitary protocol, and only within the framework of organized trips, about 2,000 tourists, mostly from the United States and Europe, a number hardly comparable with the millions of annual pilgrims before the pandemic, traveled to the Holy Land until 11 August 2021.
On that date, just as bookings were finally picking up, the Israeli authorities suspended this authorization again because of a very high rate of contamination with variant Delta in the whole region. Immediately, including for stays at very distant dates, cancellations followed one another, dashing all hopes.
On September 4, 2021, the Israeli government gave a little oxygen to the tourism professionals with a new measurement:
As of September 19, 2021, tourist groups are again allowed to enter Israel under the following conditions:
- Arrivals only allowed by air;
- Authorization is reserved for members of a 5 to 30 people tour group, traveling to and from Israel on the same flights, and hosted by a local travel agency approved by the Israeli government.
Today, only Israeli agencies and Palestinian tour operators based in East Jerusalem registered at the Israeli Ministry of Tourism have this possibility, tour operators based in the Palestinian Territories, including Bethlehem, are unfortunately still excluded.
Travelers from countries still on the Israeli Ministry of Health's red list are not allowed to benefit from this arrangement.
Each traveler within this group must also:
- hold a green pass attesting to a complete and valid vaccination protocol (young children who have not been vaccinated are therefore not allowed to enter Israel; NB: not all vaccines are recognized by the Israeli authorities),
- have a negative PCR test performed less than 72 hours before departure,
- have completed an online form (individual) less than 24 hours before departure transmitted by the travel agency or the airline Cie,
- agree to undergo another PCR test at Ben Gurion airport (approx. $23 if prepaid - online registration by travel agency/tour operator),
- present proof of health insurance valid in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories for the entire duration of the stay and also covering Covid-19 related conditions.
As the use of public transport and taxis is not permitted for arrivals at the airport, travelers, under the responsibility of the tour operator, must be taken in a dedicated vehicle to their place of residence. They are required to stay there until they receive a text message informing them that the PCR test performed at the airport is negative. The receipt of this message marks the end of mandatory isolation (within 24 hours of arrival).
If one of the members of the group is tested positive, only he or she would be subject to isolation, with the possibility of contesting this result (serology) and of circulating again as soon as the first negative test was performed.
Once this constraint is lifted, the conditions of circulation remain the same as before the pandemic, even if unfortunately, the current health regulations still do not allow travelers to cross the land border between Jordan and Israel.
At the beginning of this autumn, weather conditions are ideal, prices have never been so attractive, and the absence of mass tourism guarantees a unique aesthetic and spiritual experience on all the sites, especially the religious ones. On the spot, all the actors in the tourism industry are giving visitors a welcome worthy of their efforts and of these long months of separation.
With all our thanks to Mr. Tony Khashram, President of the Holy Land Incoming Tour Operators Association (HLITOA) and Director of Aeolus Tours-Jerusalem as well as to Mr. Fabien Safar, Director of Terradeitours, for their precious help in the writing of this article.