Virus concerns hit Israeli tourism

Ben Gurion Airport

Bookings are down and cancellations are up as tourism slumps. Hoteliers are hoping that Israelis reluctant to travel abroad will pick up the slack.

Just as many Israelis are hysterically canceling their flights, and not only to East Asia, tourists who planned to visit Israel are doing the same thing. Israel Incoming Tour Operators director general Yossi Fattal is talking about a 50-60% drop in the volume of organized tour groups to Israel.

Fattal also cites cancelations by groups that have already booked a trip to Israel, including from Europe, not just China. "It's still marginal, 10% cancellations, but it's obvious to us that this is a global trend. It's not related to us, but it will also reach here. It will be of very substantial proportions."

"We're immediately holding emergency discussions, in which we'll talk about how to deal with the possibility of mass cancellations. The market is in shock. We're getting dozens of calls from groups in Europe and the US. We're worried about the cancellations, and also worried about the financial health of suppliers in Israel, given the cancellations of services that our partners abroad (tourism wholesalers) bought for the groups. It's 10% cancellations now, but it's obvious that this will increase."

The state of shock that Fattal is referring to is also a fitting description of what is happening among travel agents in Israel.

"Travelers who purchased a vacation in Warsaw are calling me, and they are worried. The market in Israel is affected by the panic sowed by the Ministry of Health," a veteran tourist agent told "Globes." "There is drastic decline in bookings for East Asia, and that's understandable, but bookings in general have come to a standstill, even for Passover flights to Verona or Cyprus."

Another agent is convinced that the next countries to experience cancellations by Israeli passengers will be Thailand and Japan. "The cherry blossom season in Japan, which will take place next month, normally attracts thousands of Israelis, including on the direct flights that El Al is launching now with unfortunate timing.

"Given the warnings by the Ministry of Health about countries other than China, including Thailand, Japan, and South Korea, the public is panicking, and not taking a risk on East Asian countries. Our call center is getting mainly calls from people wanting to know the cancellation terms for the package or flight that they booked. Since refunds cannot be obtained for many of these flights, many people who know that they are liable to lose their money prefer waiting until the last minute," the agent said.

The coronavirus was the main topic of conversation among those in the tourist sector at this week's IMTM International Tourism Conference in Tel Aviv. Skepticism, given the halt in orders for Passover and bookings for summer vacations is alarming many. Some of the companies have even put employees on vacation.

No guarantee that domestic tourism will profit

Will the local tourism sector profit from Israelis worrying about vacationing overseas? It depends on whom you ask.

Travel agents assert that the slowdown extends to vacations in Israel. "People are waiting to see which way the wind is blowing. If the epidemic stops, they will still be able to buy packages for overseas. If it doesn't, then they will vacation in Israel or give up their vacations altogether," one of the agents says.

The Gulliver Tourism company sees a clear increase in vacations in Israel. "Israeli tourism is unquestionably profiting here," says CEO Ziv Rozen. "There is a clear and unmistakable increase in vacations in Israel at the expense of flights. Eilat is leading the demand table. We saw a 50% rise in orders for Passover in the past week. There are consumers who are converting flights to East Asia in the coming month into one-week vacations in Israel."

Isrotel CEO Lior Raviv also says that bookings are on the rise. "There is a natural increase in interest among groups and individual travelers about booking into hotels in Israel, especially in Eilat and at the Dead Sea, but also elsewhere in Israel. This is mainly in February-March, and also for Passover. We're getting calls mainly in the past few days. The rate of bookings for Passover is also picking up. Instead of Greece, Israelis are thinking about a vacation in Eilat. Demand for Eilat during Passover is always strong. It's higher this year, but we won't raise the prices excessively."

Many travel agents are pointing a finger at the Ministry of Health, saying that the panic and halt in bookings, and not just for China, results from the severe warnings for a number of countries, in contrast to the instructions by other countries. The Thailand Ministry of Tourism stated, "Tourists are entering and leaving Bangkok as usual."

The Ministry of Foreign Affairs also claimed that the Ministry of Health's warnings against "unnecessary" visits to Japan, Thailand, Vietnam, and South Korea were likely to lead to a political crisis. "We understand the concern about the spread of the coronavirus, but this decision does not take into account important political considerations. No other country in the world is taking such a step, and we are liable to pay a political price with these countries," Ministry of Foreign Affairs sources said.

2019 saw a record 4.55 million tourists visit Israel and a new record was expected in 2020 - until the coronavirus outbreak happened. If the virus is not brought under control soon, then the Ministry of Tourism can forget about another record breaking year, even though not a single case of coronavirus has been reported in Israel.

Published by Globes, Israel business news - - on February 12, 2020

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

Ben Gurion Airport
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