Israeli tourism expected to remain in coma until 2021

“In my industry 2020 is over,” said Mark Feldman, owner of Ziontours in Jerusalem. “Travel as we know it has changed.”

By Paul Shindman, World Israel News

A veteran Israeli tourism industry operator said Thursday that the pandemic will impact the tourism industry permanently, which will have to adjust to a new reality.

“In my industry 2020 is over,” said Mark Feldman, owner of Ziontours in Jerusalem. “Travel as we know it has changed.”

Feldman said the situation is critical and his colleagues in the tourism industry know that if even 50 percent of the workers return, that would be a high number.

“My 38 employees are quite aware that not all of them are coming back [to work], there’s just no way,” he told OMNY Radio. “That’s just the sad reality.”

“It’s a seismic change” that will affect all aspects of the industry including hotels, rental agencies, tour guides and all businesses connected to travel and tourism.

With international air travel almost totally suspended and airlines starting to declare bankruptcy, Feldman feels that the brutal impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the travel industry worldwide will be felt for years to come and the recovery will be in slow stages.

Israel’s tourism industry has been shut down for two months with approximately 250,000 workers unemployed, representing a huge chunk of the million Israelis who have filed for unemployment benefits and driven the jobless rate to over 25 percent.

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Feldman said it was too early to say when tourism would restart in Israel. Travel operators still have not heard anything from Tourism Ministry officials on what recovery plans are being made.

Travel workers were planning “a huge demonstration across from the Knesset” next week, he said.

“Travel will be the last thing to come back and it will take the longest. It will need an incredible amount of assistance from governments around the world,” he noted, adding the upheaval will be like the major changes in security after 9/11. The new flying norm will include social distancing.

“Middle seats will be taken out of most planes, which means less capacity and higher prices,” he said, adding that even when air travel resumes, few people will go abroad. The first to venture out will most likely be family members traveling to events like weddings.

The tourism industry will restart with domestic tourism, but only for those who can afford it due to high unemployment and less disposable income, he said.

Business travel, a key source of airline income, will slow to a trickle outside of some service industries, those looking for investment and a few professionals.

“The vast majority of businesses will not be flying in 2020. It’s over,” he said. “Every single conference has been canceled for this year.”

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Asked if Israel will return to the record levels of tourism it had in 2019, Feldman was blunt.

“It won’t. I see it starting slowly to come back in the first quarter of 2021, but that’s assuming we don’t have a second wave of corona.”

The issue now is how to make travel safe. He pointed out Austria is now testing every incoming passenger on arrival, making them wait three hours for the result.

If they test negative for coronavirus they are allowed to go on their way, but a positive test will put them in quarantine for two weeks.

There is little hope for those who booked travel and didn’t get a refund for canceled flights, because airlines simply don’t have the money. Feldman said, noting a class action suit in Israel against the airlines was useless if they can’t pay.

Although airlines know that by law they have to give a cash refund for a canceled flight, “the airlines have had zero income in March, in April, in May and now in June. They literally don’t have the money.”

“Until governments bail out airlines with money, they don’t have any way of paying back customers. It’s either go bankrupt or get a bailout, there is no middle road.”

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“El Al owes my office $2.2 million which I of course have to repay every single one of my clients,” he said, noting he fully intended to reimburse every one of his customers no matter how long it takes. However, the reality was so bleak he was not sure of the future of his company.

“In all honesty I’m not sure it can survive. Everyone in the travel industry [in Israel] has put their workers on unpaid leave until the middle of July, and some have said don’t come back until the middle of August or September.”

On the subject of Israel’s El Al airlines, which was forced to lay off most of its employees and faces critical cutbacks to avoid bankruptcy, Feldman was not certain about an industry partner he has worked closely with for over 40 years.

“I want to believe that the government will not let their [air] carrier fall,” he said. “Anything is possible, but I find it impossible to fathom that Israel would allow its so-called national carrier to go bankrupt.”