Israel tourism suffers as pandemic drags on

By Keren Setton

The entrance to the old city of Jerusalem is nearly empty. Taxis are parked with drivers sitting idly on benches and reading newspapers. They have no clients and nowhere to drive to.

Michel Benham sits at the shop he inherited from his grandfather. His convenience store usually serves tourists arriving in the city. But in recent weeks, he doesn’t open the store often.

Eilat Lieber is the director and chief curator of the Tower of David Museum. Used to greeting around 3,000 visitors a day, the museum is now empty and quiet.

When the COVID-19 pandemic started in March, the city shutdown. For Jerusalem, a city in which many businesses rely solely on tourism, the blow was even more severe. As the skies closed, the city immediately emptied.

Shops are shuttered. The alleys are empty. With no tourists, many shop owners do not see the point in opening.

During 2019, approximately four million tourists arrived to experience the diverse sites the city has to offer. However, as the pandemic reached the region, the city went into lockdown and has struggled to recover ever since.

As a second lockdown was imposed in September, it was a deadly blow that many tourism-related businesses might have difficulty recovering from.

For a brief period, when restrictions were lifted, the city’s tourism industry tried to breath a bit. But the skies still remained closed to foreign tourists and Jerusalem, which is used to an influx of foreigners, tried to benefit from local tourism. It was short-lived, as virus levels surged once again and a second lockdown was imposed.

“This is so sad, you can’t imagine,” Lieber from the Tower of David Museum told Xinhua that “we live for the visitors, all of us actually are ambassadors of Jerusalem, but now there are ambassadors alone without our visitors.”

The museum welcomes about half a million guests a year. At the old city entrance, people who finish a visit at the museum often continue to the surrounding sights and support the local businesses. The domino effect of the pandemic is illustrated well in the city.

For Eli Ilan, the busiest times are summer and spring, where he guides groups back-to-back. In March, he suddenly found himself with nothing to do as the cancellations started pouring in his inbox.

For him, the quiet of Jerusalem is a rare chance to see angles of Jerusalem usually invisible when the streets are packed. But, as he has lost his livelihood, he hopes things will return to normal.

“It breaks my heart,” Ilan told Xinhua, “You find yourself unemployed from being the busiest person in the busiest time of year, you are suddenly doing nothing and lost the main income of the year.”

Many of the tourism workers are self-employed. Experts have urged the government to help the workers in the tourism sector by supplying them with state-sponsored training for new vocations. But for now, other than minimum financial support, many are struggling and forced to forge a new path on their own.

“You really have to stand on your own feet and constantly be ready for change,” Ilan said.

For Jerusalemites like Michel, there is always hope. He believes Jerusalem will be a top destination once the pandemic is over.

“Jerusalem is an important, attractive place for millions of people and I’m sure once we overcome the COVID-19 epidemic and the world will recover, immediately more people would like to come.”

In the meantime, the city, like many others in the world, is suffering.