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Out of options: Israeli tour guides march in protest of closures

CM 24/08/2021 10

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With no incoming tourists, no more government support and no work, representatives from Israel’s tour guide sector are marching from Caesarea to Jerusalem to protest their situation.
“I have had only 12 days of work since last March because of coronavirus,” said Kobi Cooper, a Jerusalem-based tour guide on the march. “I’m luckier than most tour guides because I’ll keep getting unemployment benefits through October because I’m over 45 years old, but that only covers 38% of my normal income. People are very concerned about how they are going to be able to feed their families. I know a lot of people who have switched professions or moved away from Israel.”
Cooper said, “I have three colleagues who have killed themselves because of the situation.”

Israeli tour guides are seen protesting outside the Knesset as low tourism and no government benefits puts them in crisis, on July 6, 2021. (credit: ZEV STUB)Israeli tour guides are seen protesting outside the Knesset as low tourism and no government benefits puts them in crisis, on July 6, 2021. (credit: ZEV STUB)
Israel’s inbound tour guide industry is sandwiched between two different recent government decisions that have made earning a living virtually impossible. On the one hand, the country is essentially closed to the foreign tourists who are their bread and butter. On the other hand, Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman’s hard-line approach to kick-starting the labor market means that unemployment benefits are no longer available for people under 45, and that grants for independent workers are no longer available.
Finance Ministry officials have said that the treasury is unwilling to make exceptions to its policies for individual sectors.
“That means if you are under 45, you are not getting anything, and if you are over 45, you are getting less and less each month through October, when those benefits will end,” said Yoav Rotem, another tour guide protesting.
“People tell me I should go get a different job,” Rotem said. “What they don’t understand is that we spent the summer getting ready for tourists because the government said they would be able to come. I was preparing for a group coming in July, but that never happened.”
Rotem and others have been protesting the coronavirus closures since the beginning of the pandemic, but with the ending of unemployment benefits, things are coming to a head.
A recent initiative proposed by the Tourism Ministry offered to solve the problem by finding 400 tour guides to work as ushers on public transportation, instructing them about wearing masks and other information.
“These types of solutions aren’t serious,” Rotem said. “That’s not the type of work or the kind of salary we need to survive.”
The four-day protest march by a small cadre of tour guides is interspersed with larger protest events in Tel Aviv and other locations along the route, as well as impromptu “sunrise coffees” outside the homes of political leaders.
“This morning, we marched to the home of Tourism Minister Yoel Razvozov, and he came out and had coffee with us for several minutes,” Rotem said. “ He said he thought that there were only about 100 tour guides in the country affected by this, and that he couldn’t do anything to help. We know that there are actually between 1,500 and 3,000 inbound tour guides in Israel.”
Moreshet Derech, an organization representing inbound tour guides, has estimated that there may actually be as many as 6,000 tour guides licensed to work with foreigners in different languages.
“He asked us for solutions,” Rotem added. “That’s easy. In June, Israel was allowing in pilot groups that operated in capsules, and reported no COVID outbreaks from them. Bring those back, with all the restrictions, so we can make sure everyone stays safe.”
“This is the person who is supposed to be our voice in the government, working to find ways to open the country safely and securely,” Cooper noted. “It was very frustrating.”
“Our protest has two main messages,” Cooper said. “First, tourism can be done in a safe and secure way here just like in other countries. If a person from abroad has taken the same PCR tests, vaccines and other precautions as others, they are no less safe than anyone else. In fact, the real problem isn’t the tourists, it’s the Israelis coming back from abroad and not following quarantine rules.”
Second, Cooper said, the tour guides need financial certainty. “You told us in May that the country would be open, and we booked groups. Then, when you said that there would be a week-long quarantine, it all got canceled. If you shut us down, we need to be paid.”
“We aren’t even looking for grants, just severance pay for our losses,” Rotem added. “Israel made decisions that created a very problematic situation for tourism.”
“The people who become inbound tour guides are mainly new immigrants who are working as some of the country’s best ambassadors speaking to tourists in their native languages,” Cooper said. “For most of us, it’s not just a job, it’s a calling. And being barred from doing our work feels like part of our souls have been taken away.”

Source: Jerusalem Post

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