Reopening Israel's skies is not so simple

Greece

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hopes to open up Israel to Greece and Cyprus on August 1, but don't start packing yet.

Can we really get ready to vacation in Greece and Cyprus after August 1? Israel's tourism and vacation sector was eagerly awaiting Tuesday's meeting between Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis in Jerusalem, which was expected to herald the reopening of Israel's borders.

Netanyahu did not disappoint, and said at the start of the meeting, "We want to mark August 1 as the target date for a possible opening of Israeli tourism to Greece and Cyprus. It depends on the rate of infections." So note that Netanyahu has qualified the statement with 'possible' - in other words there is no official plan or agreement. He has of course also further qualified it with talk about the rate of infections, which in recent days in Israel has not been encouraging.

There are already agreements between 'green' countries with low infection rates to open up to tourism. These agreements create tourism bubbles - in other words a mutual decision between countries to relax the need for self-isolation when going abroad and coming back.

As things stand in Israel, no foreign passport holders are allowed in and Israelis returning from abroad are required to self-isolate for 14 days.

An official announcement from the Prime Minister's Office after yesterday's meeting with the Greek prime minister, expanded slightly and repeated what had been said earlier, with all the qualifications. "We are talking here about a target date of August 1 for opening the skies to destinations in Greece and Cyprus. It also depends on what will happen with the coronavirus, but if the numbers allow it, that is the target date for opening the skies. This is very important news."

Meanwhile, before rushing out to book a vacation, it is worth remembering that the Covid-19 morbidity data in Israel no longer ranks the country as an attractive proposition for tourism. Although the agreements with Greece and Cyprus would be mutual, it is clear that most of the movement would be of Israelis traveling abroad, mainly because Greece and Cyprus are marginal countries in terms of incoming tourism to Israel, which is very expensive by any standards.

Cyprus has anyway already changed Israel's ranking from an A-grade country with the least coronavirus to B-grade medium risk. This would require Israelis traveling to Cyprus to present a valid negative Covid-19 test from up to 72 hours before their arrival. It is unclear whether Israelis would be prepared to go on vacation if they need to be tested first. These categories are dynamic so by August 1, if Israel's new infections curve has improved then the country might have returned to Category A.

But what if Israelis will still need a valid test to get into Cyprus. The Ministry of Health says, "Vacationers cannot go and get a test so that they can fly. The State of Israel only allows tests to be carried out for requirements according to the law."

Are the airlines ready?

The Israel Airport Authority employees recently reached an agreement whereby they will continue receiving their salaries until September 2020, even if they are not working. This could be the target date for which the government plans reopening the borders.

Are Israel's airlines ready for reopening the skies, or will foreign carriers fill the vacuum? Both Arkia and El Al have already informed employees that they will remain furloughed until at least the end of July. Israir has been operating on a restricted schedule to Eilat and Europe and would be best positioned to take advantage of heavy air traffic and sell package tours to Israelis flying to Greece and Cyprus from August 1. But who would provide travel insurance for whether the vacations will actually happen for people prepared to buy package tours in advance?

Meanwhile back in Israel the tourist industry is in some distress. Hoteliers in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv can on expect domestic tourism to make up for the absence of foreign tourists. Major ad campaigns have been launched to attract Israeli tourists to local hotels but it will unlikely be enough to salvage a lost year.

No rush to open the skies

Encouraging domestic tourism is one of the reasons why Israel may not be in any rush to reopen its skies. Keeping Israeli tourists from traveling abroad is one way of keeping the money in Israel - in hotels, restaurants, stores, places of entertainment and attractions. Last summer alone, 2.5 million Israelis flew abroad on vacation.

A second reason for keeping the borders closed is Israel's good friend the US. Sources in the tourism sector are convinced that Netanyahu will find it difficult to open the country's borders to certain countries but not the US. The US is the most popular tourist destination for Israelis and the number one source of incoming tourism but many believe it unthinkable that it could be left on a list of 'unsafe' countries.

So despite all this, will Israel's skies open up to Greece and Cyprus on August 1 as Netanyahu has suggested? It's not clear. A long list of other 'green' or 'safe' countries including Montenegro, Slovenia, Zanzibar and the Seychelles are no longer being touted in headlines. The Ministry of Health offers no clue in a dry statement on the matter. "The decision on the date and the way that Israel will reopen to people who are not Israeli residents will be decided by the government according to the rate of infections."

In any event, it might be too soon to start fantasizing about a vacation abroad and packing your bags.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - en.globes.co.il - on June 18, 2020

© Copyright of Globes Publisher Itonut (1983) Ltd. 2020

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