Israel has opened its borders to international tourists. However, it won’t be open slather. Israel is keen to revive its shattered tourism industry and give its airlines a boost. But Israel’s border re-opening will be a very controlled process, starting with small groups of tourists.
Israel opens to tourists despite recent troubles
From Sunday, May 23, Israel is letting in a limited number of vaccinated foreign tour groups. This follows last week’s ceasefire between Israel and Palestine that followed another round of violence. That violence included rocket attacks that saw Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion International Airport temporarily closed and many airlines suspend flights to Israel.
Sunday’s start date was a line in the sand. Tour groups had to apply online for permission, and Israel will only accept 20 tour groups. Online applications only opened last week, meaning the threadbare tourist inflow into Israel is yet to start.
“We had a very short time to apply, and we received a message that the first 20 had already been approved before we had applied. It was frustrating,” one inbound Israeli tourist operator told The Jerusalem Post newspaper.
This pilot program will only continue for another month. But if it is successful, it may be extended. There’s hope individual travelers will be able to enter Israel from July.
Tourists important to Israel’s economy and airlines
Tourism is important to Israel and its airlines. Reuters is reporting 2019 statistics, saying 4.55 million people visited Israel that year. They tipped US$7.1 billion into the economy.
More recently, relations between Israel and many of its near neighbors have thawed. Israel has now established direct air links to Morocco and the United Arab Emirates, opening up new markets when regular international flying resumes.
But between rocket attacks, travel restrictions, and a general slump in international travel demand, Israel’s airlines are doing it tough. They will welcome any uptick in business, even if it is only a handful of small group tours.
Israel’s airlines doing it tough
Israel has a limited domestic network. Flights between Tel Aviv and Eilat are the extent of it – and that is only a 175-mile flight. According to ch-aviation, four passenger airlines are based at Ben Gurion Airport. This includes the flag carrier, El Al. The other three airlines are Arkia Israeli Airlines, Israir, and Sun d’Or International Airlines. Only Arkia Israeli Airlines and Israir fly between Tel Aviv and Eilat. Sun d’Or International Airlines and El Al operate international routes.
Sun d’Or International Airlines is a wholly-owned subsidiary of El Al. It normally flies seasonal and charter flights to Europe. The airline only has one plane, an aging Boeing 737-800. Parent airline El Al is significantly larger, currently flying 24 of its 46 planes. The airline is optimistically promoting Israel as a tourist destination on its website. It needs all the passengers it can get. El Al lost US$531 million in 2020 and recently received a $210 million aid package to keep it flying.
Both Israir and Arkia Israeli Airlines have a handful of planes each. Normally, both airlines jet around the region. But their wings have been clipped in the last year. With most airlines suspending flights to Tel Aviv in light of the recent rocket attacks, Israir and Arkia Israeli Airlines have drummed up extra business running repatriation flights for stranded Israelis.
All four airlines stand to potentially benefit from Israel’s decision to re-open its borders to tourists. But it is early days yet, and it is going to take more than 20 tour groups to gives Israel’s airlines the boost they need.