Israeli Resorts, Hotels Try to Create Virus-Free Zones

“I needed a vacation,” says Amar, who traveled with his oldest son, 13, who had been out of school and mainly stuck at home in Jerusalem since March, when the coronavirus pandemic arrived in Israel. The pandemic has led to months of severe restrictions across Israel, including government-mandated isolation for those exposed to the virus, and periods of time when residents were banned from traveling more than 100 meters (110 yards) from home.

“My son also needed to get out. So we just decided to go.”

While most hotels in Israel, along with all restaurants, bars, cafes and swimming pools remain closed amid rising virus numbers, Eilat and a cluster of resorts at the Ein Bokek district on the Dead Sea have opened, offering visitors some much needed relaxation and hotels some much-needed income. To do so safely, both Eilat and Ein Bokek require visitors to provide proof of a negative virus test, taken within 72 hours of their arrival.

This effort in Israel is the latest expression of countries seeking ways to issue some form of notification, often fueled by technology, to ease travel and recharge economic sectors hit hard by lockdowns. However, the World Health Organization warned last spring that so-called “immunity passports” do not guarantee a person who has been infected could not face another infection.

The shutdown of Israel’s tourism sector has led to about $3.6 billion in lost revenue in 2020 and accounts for high levels of unemployment, according to the tourism ministry. Labeled “green islands” by the Israeli government, such virus-free zones are attempts to jump-start tourism as the pandemic continues.

“So far this project is not 100%, but we see it’s working,” says Nir Wanger, head of the Tamar Regional Council, an area that includes the Ein Bokek Dead Sea hotels that together employ more than 1,500 people. “It’s for sure helping the economy.” Tourism and public health officials say that vaccines, including those made by Pfizer that started to arrive in Israel on Wednesday, will likely boost such zones in Israel and globally.

“There’s no doubt that once there’s a vaccine available, the vaccinated people are the perfect people to go to these places,” says Allon Moses, a physician and head of the department of clinical microbiology and infectious diseases at Hadassah Medical Center in Jerusalem.

Amar, a tour guide who has been unemployed since March when Israel closed its borders to foreign visitors, was one of the first to take advantage of the opening of Eilat, which began in mid-November.

“They gave you gloves to wear for the hotel buffet, but otherwise it was normal,” he says. “There was also something comforting about knowing that everyone there tested negative.”

Even with the testing program, there are still safeguards in place to prevent the spread of the virus, including a requirement to wear masks at all times except when eating or exercising, and capacity limits on indoor spaces such as stores, hotel dining rooms and lobbies.

“There is a change, obviously,” says Shabi Shai, head of the Eilat Hotels Association. “But it’s better than staying closed.”

About 40 of the city’s approximately 50 hotels are open, with occupancy rates between 65% and 75%, he said. Those rates are actually slightly higher than those of mid-December last year. “It’s really not bad, but the testing requirement does take the spontaneity out of travel,” Shai says.

There have been some hiccups, including a coronavirus outbreak in November among 10 employees at the Isrotel Dead Sea Hotel, Resort and Spa. “I think the best way to describe these zones is risk-management,” Moses says. “I think the prospects are good, but it’s not like you have a utopia and the disease is over.”

Lines at the checkpoints to enter the restricted zones have also been long as Israeli military home-front command officials check everyone’s test results upon entry. And local media report that hundreds of cars have been turned away because occupants did not have proof of tests.

The testing requirements for entry also apply to local residents who want to come and go from their city, which some have said can be a burden. But unlike visitors who must take traditional COVID-19 swab tests and wait at least a day for results, local residents are allowed to take rapid virus tests, with a station for this set up outside the city.

“At first when I heard about this, I was afraid there would be a lot of bureaucracy with the testing,” says Ruth Vlessing, who splits her time between Jerusalem and Eilat, where her husband is a marine biologist. “But it has turned out not to be a big deal.”

Local leaders and businesses hope more visitors take advantage of the islands, and that a change in restrictions could allow hotels and other venues in these areas to start hosting events like weddings, which would further boost the tourism sector and the economy, both of which were growing rapidly before the pandemic.

“In the next stage this model could be extended to other areas and additional fields,” says Israel’s tourism minister, Orit Farkash Hacohen. “And I hope, at a later stage, that it also allows for the return of international visitors.”

But for now, there is a limit to how much the zones can help Israel. While they may offer some relief to hotels in the Dead Sea and Eilat, as long as other social-distancing requirements remain in place, there is little that can help other parts of the tourism sector, like tour guides, bus drivers, shops and restaurants.

“I had a great time in Eilat,” Amar says. “But it doesn’t give me that much hope as a tour guide. I could never take a group there now, with the limits on how many people can gather. There is no way 40 people are going to get on a bus with a guide. So much about tourism involves groups, and that’s going to take a long time to come back.”

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