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Coronavirus: Where will Israelis fly abroad, what red tape is in the way?

CM 06/05/2021

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 The last two months have seen an explosion in travel requests and reservations. It appears that after a country, like Israel, shows great success in battling COVID-19, its citizens seek other countries that can be accessed with proof of a vaccine.

A few weeks ago, there was a rumor that Greece and Cyprus were going to open, and that vaccinated Israelis could enter without doing any quarantine. As soon as that rumor spread, Greece bookings took off. The quarantine has been lifted even for passengers who are not vaccinated, but they must now have a negative PCR test. Not a COVID-19 test, as the United States requires for entry, but a PCR test.
What is a PCR test? A polymerase chain reaction (PCR) test is performed to detect genetic material from a specific organism, such as a virus. The test detects the presence of a virus if you are infected at the time of the test. The test could also detect fragments of a virus even after you are no longer infected. It is considered the gold standard of COVID-19 testing, and the results take much longer to receive than the Covid-19 testing.
Unlike the US, which requires for entry only a COVID-19 test within 72 hours of departing the country of origin, Israel requires a PCR test to enter its borders. Even with this knowledge, many Israelis, when trying to board their return flight to Israel, showed up at airports without a PCR test and were denied boarding. Learn the difference and plan accordingly.
For travel to Greece, its government has clearly spelled out the requirements: The passenger must hold a certificate of vaccination, in English, issued by a public authority. The vaccination must be administered at least 14 days before arrival to Greece. The certificate must include the passenger’s full name, the type of vaccine, the number of doses and inoculation dates.
The Israeli Health Ministry’s response to the clear, concise and intelligent requirements laid out by the Greek government was a flippant reply: It’s all Greek to me!
After 15 months, tourist groups will be allowed into Israel later this month. Not individuals, mind you, not families, nor potential investors, unless they come from the Emirates. Only groups at this stage. They, too, will need to be vaccinated. But upon landing in Israel, they will have to do a serological test.

This is not a nasal swab like the COVID-19 or PCR test aforementioned. A serological test is a blood test that tests for the presence of specific antibodies that the patient’s body produces against different pathogens, bacteria and viruses that remain in the patient’s body even after recovery.
Positive results to a serological test usually indicate that this individual was indeed sick with a disease, and sometimes they also indicate recovery and long-term immunity.
As medical experts have espoused, serological tests also have a limited level of accuracy, so we cannot always entirely rely on their results. Additionally, positive test results cannot indicate whether the disease was active in the patient’s body at the time that the sample was collected, or if the patient’s body is recovering.
The costs of this test will be passed on to the tourist groups, as will the demand that they stay in quarantine until the results are produced, which can take up to 24 hours. Those who were vaccinated with vaccines acceptable to the Israeli Health Ministry – sorry, no Chinese or Russian vaccines made the cut – will be able to get a vaccination certificate, thus allowing them to enter any Israeli establishment.
Israel’s phenomenal fight against COVID-19 has proved to date so successful that by the time the tourists do arrive, most of any restrictions on movements or gatherings will most likely be lifted.
For the foreseeable future, groups of tourists from the following seven unlucky countries will not be welcome: Brazil, Ethiopia, India, Mexico, South Africa, Turkey and Ukraine.
In fact, the Israeli Health Ministry will require all travelers from those seven virus-hit nations to quarantine upon arrival in Israel, even if they have been vaccinated.
Turkish Airlines and Ethiopian Airlines will soon see a dramatic decrease in new bookings, even though one can safely fly those airlines to destinations beyond. In fact, the Health Ministry has made it clear that one can transit any of those seven countries up to 12 hours and still be exempt from quarantine.
SO, WHO will be flying this spring and summer, and where will the greatest demand be? The resumption of long-haul travel faces numerous headwinds, including ongoing outbreaks and lockdowns in some countries amid slower vaccination campaigns, as well as valid passports and visas to certain countries. It is the latter which has created havoc for those desiring to visit the United States.
Notably, much of the travel demand is for leisure or for what is known in the industry as VFR – visiting friends and relatives. Yes, some business travel has resumed; from Israel, primarily to Africa, United Arab Emirates and the United States.
From Israel the demand to travel to the US has been unprecedented. After 15 landlocked months, Americans living in Israel are saying no más. They need to visit their children or grandchildren or elderly parents. They have been vaccinated and are cognizant that, barring a positive COVID-19 test, all 50 states in the US will welcome them. No mandatory quarantine exists, and their family in the US has thrown open its arms.
No such luck for Canadians, whose government’s inability to vaccinate large numbers of its citizens has kept the country almost as isolated as Australia. Only Canadian citizens can fly into Canada, and all must start their visit with a three-day government hotel quarantine at their expense.
I have had many Canadians flying into Buffalo and Seattle and crossing the border into Canada just to avoid this requirement. Air Canada reminds all passengers from Israel that they can transit Toronto and fly into the United States, but the competition from both El Al and the three US carriers usually leaves Air Canada out in the cold.
Israelis are beginning to grasp that a family trip of a few days or a week to Cyprus or Greece will most likely be less expensive than vacationing in Israel, but with one major caveat. Upon return to Israel, anyone not vaccinated – usually that’s children under 16 – must do a 14-day quarantine. That can be shortened to 10 days with two negative COVID-19 tests, but even 10 days is a long time to keep your children at home.
Which means the No. 1 destination this spring and summer will be to the United States. Nonstop flights to Newark, JFK, Miami, Chicago, Los Angeles and San Francisco can be had at fares not seen in many years. At this stage, so few tourists can enter and very few groups have even started reservations, so space in all the classes remains plentiful.
El Al is flying to Newark, JFK and Los Angeles. While the airline has put in flights to Chicago and Boston, they will not operate for at least the next four months, and those clients who already purchased tickets will be forced to make changes once El Al cancels those flights.
United is flying to Newark, Chicago and San Francisco and, like the other four airlines, offers economy, economy plus, premium and business fares, allowing consumers to mix and match how they wish to fly.
Delta is flying twice daily to JFK, and while it held out with social distancing, keeping empty seats on the aircraft, the increase in demand this summer led Delta to cease this benefit.
American Airlines is the new kid on the block. Back in Israel after a lengthy absence, it is flying daily flights to JFK and, come June, will add Miami to the mix. In October, American will be the first airline offering nonstop flights to/from Dallas. The eyes of Texas will be upon American as it tries this fall and winter to woo the Evangelical market in the US to visit the Holy Land.
Many countries around the world have the visa process down to a science. It is no longer necessary to seek out the closest embassy or consulate or even to mail in your passport and visa application; it is done online. Be it Canada, India, the United Arab Emirates or dozens of other countries, one applies online, and if the application is approved, the visa is either sent by return email or given when one enters the country.
Not so the United States for Israeli visitors. Unless one has a visa that has expired, all visa requests must be done in person.
In actual fact, this obsolete requirement to interview the applicant and look into his or her eyes to discern if the applicant will violate his visa has been inoperative during COVID-19. Month after month, interviews that had been scheduled were canceled by the US Embassy and Consulate. Emergency visas were approved, campers visas and student visas as well.
But tourist visas have been left on the sideline. All appointments at the US Embassy branch office in Tel Aviv have been canceled for both May and June. Appointments in Jerusalem are still being honored.
In fact, it has gotten so absurd that middlemen now charge exorbitant fees to get you an interview. One of the best-known characters hangs around the coffee shop where the US officials imbibe coffee, and for $300 he can procure an appointment. Best of all, he is legitimate. No idea how he succeeds, but the US State Department should be aware of this flagrant abuse of power.
Dual nationality Israeli-Americans living in Israel have a similar problem. When blessed with a newborn, the path to the embassy is quite simple, and acquiring that US passport should be near automatic. Unfortunately, one must show up in person with the baby, and attempts to set an appointment online show openings in August… of 2022. This absurdity extends to getting a new passport as well. For months, trying to simply get an appointment to get a new passport has been a futile exercise.
I have had clients who have sat online for hours refreshing the screen to seek out any canceled appointments that are put back in the system. One young entrepreneur has created a software application that will refresh the page every five minutes seeking out that open space.
The US Embassy in Jerusalem and the embassy’s Tel Aviv Branch Office are not short-staffed. They did not put dozens of their employees on furlough. They simply refused for the last 14 months to open their doors for interviews, thus creating an untenable bottleneck.
IN CONCLUSION, the US will see the bulk of Israeli travelers this spring and summer. El Al’s daily flight to Phuket, Thailand, will entice some Israelis. Many will fly to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, but with temperatures in the stratosphere, those flying will be seeking out potential business partners; they will not be tourists.
Flying today and for the next several months is not for the faint of heart. The health declarations that must be submitted, the COVID-19 tests and PCR tests required, mean the days where you purchased a ticket online and packed your bag are long gone.
There is no single link explaining it all; some airlines are better than others in breaking down everything required. Others have returned to their travel consultant who they long ago thought was obsolete.
The payoff when you get on that plane and you set foot where you chose to fly is indescribable. I guarantee you will be filled with joy when you arrive. Flying is freedom, and when you taste it once more, you’ll understand how much you missed it.
The writer is the CEO of Ziontours, Jerusalem, and a director at Diesenhaus. For questions and comments, email him at mark.feldman@diesenhaus.co.il

Source: Jerusalem Post

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