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Youth group trips are ready to return to Israel. Can they do it safely?

CM 29/04/2021

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 Before the coronavirus crisis hit, Israel Experience, a leading company for educational tourism in Israel, used to bring to the country around 30,000 young people from Jewish communities all over the world every year.

Even in the darkest months of the pandemic, the organization, a subsidiary of the Jewish Agency, continued to function, running a limited number of long-term programs under the most rigorous safety standards.
As Israel’s borders are slowly reopening, Israel Experience is ready resume its full-scale activities while spearheading a safe model to bring foreign visitors to the country, with tremendous potential benefit to the nation’s economy, as the company’s new chairwoman, Hana Pri-Zan, and CEO Amos Hermon explained.
“Some 2,200 youth have participated in our long-term programs this year, and not even a single one got sick with coronavirus,” Hermon said. “I believe that our experience shows how it is possible to bring back tourist groups to Israel safely.”
The CEO stressed that the company rigorously followed the directives provided by health authorities and went beyond them by ensuring proper social distancing between participants, devoting part of the facilities to those who needed to quarantine because they were exposed to someone positive to the virus, hiring more staff, and so on.
Israeli borders have been closed to noncitizens since spring 2020, with very limited exceptions. Young people participating in yearlong programs in Israel were one of the few categories of foreign nationals that could be authorized to enter the country.
For this reason, Israel Experience still managed to run some of its long-term programs, which include opportunities to intern at major Israeli companies and to teach English in Israeli elementary schools as well as a track for medical graduates from the former Soviet Union to prepare and undergo the test to get a medical license to practice in the country. In pre-corona years, some 3,500 people attended them.

The short-term programs, on the other hand, have been put completely on hold. Before the pandemic, these trips – two to six weeks long – brought to Israel some 22,000 people from all over the world, including about 18,000 under 18, in trips mostly organized by Jewish day schools or youth movements. Israel Experience is working on bringing those young people back, even those who, in consideration of their young age, have not been able to get vaccinated yet.
“Today, bringing these young people to Israel is more important than ever,” Pri-Zan pointed out. “They need to see how people live here, they have to meet Israelis. It is a unique experience and opportunity. Not to mention the importance of these trips for the Israeli economy. We are talking about flights, rooms, restaurants, touristic attractions, transportation, stores and more.”
In 2020, tourism from overseas in the country dropped by 81%. According to figures provided by Israel Experience, the company provided 1.1 million yearly overnight stays before the pandemic, or about 9% of the total overnight stays. The company added that it could bring some $90 million in sales and direct investments from participants.
The educational aspect is also considered a crucial emergency by the company’s heads.
“We have Jewish leaders from all over the world calling us and begging us to do something to resume Israel trips for their youth,” Hermon stressed. “We are increasingly seeing how nothing strengthens Jewish identity and connection to Israel more than spending a meaningful period here with their friends.”
According to the plan to bring back tourists to Israel, the first vaccinated foreign visitors traveling in groups are set to be allowed in starting from May 23.
However, when it comes to educational trips, something has been already moving.
Two Israel Experience groups of vaccinated high school students from New York and New Jersey – about 200 people – were allowed in earlier this month. Several hundreds more are awaiting to be authorized.
Taglit-Birthright also announced that it will bring its first groups back in May. The organization offers free trips to Israel to Jewish youth, ages 18-32, from all over the world. Since its establishment in 1999, the organization has brought some 750,000 people to visit Israel. The last group traveled in March 2020, but now several dozen trips are scheduled to take place between May and June, while hundreds more are set to take place in July-October.
In the first phase, the trips are going to include no more than 20 participants and will be available only to people from the United States, where the vaccine is already offered to everyone age 16 and up and a high rate of the population has been inoculated.
WHILE OTHER countries consider a negative coronavirus test sufficient to enter their borders and avoid quarantine, at the moment Israeli authorities appear to be willing to let into the country only vaccinated tourists who, in addition to presenting their vaccination certificates, are required to undergo two tests, one before boarding the flight and one upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport, as well as a serological test to prove the presence of antibodies in their blood.
However, Israel Experience is in conversation with the government to persuade it to allow in also non-vaccinated young adults.
“In many countries in the world, it is going to take months before young people are eligible for a vaccine,” Hermon said. “We have demonstrated how, with proper standards, also non-vaccinated people can be here in safety. I am confident that the authorities are seriously considering our request.”
Israel Experience, Birthright and Masa Israel Journey, an organization founded by the Prime Minister’s Office and the Jewish Agency to offer, enhance and subsidize study, service and career development programs for young Jews, ages 18-30, are all working with health authorities to bring back educational tourism in the broadest possible way.
“We are collaborating in a very positive way,” Pri-Zan pointed out.
Pri-Zan, a former member of the board at Bank Hapoalim, joined Israel Experience as charwoman in March and is ready to take the company to new horizons, including opening programs to families and elderly.
“After this year of pandemic, research is showing us that people are going to be less willing to travel with those they do not know, but they are interested in doing so with their family members and friends.
“Moreover, we know that in most Jewish communities in the Diaspora, around 30% of the population is over 60. In the future, we might offer group trips for them as well,” she said.

Source: Jerusalem Post

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