JERUSALEM, Israel – Israel will begin welcoming individual vaccinated tourists beginning on July 1.
“The time has come for Israel to open up to tourism and to take advantage of its status as a vaccinated country for the benefit of its economy,” Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen tweeted on Thursday.
The move follows what is being considered a successful pilot project that allowed 20 groups of up to 20 vaccinated tourists each into Israel. That’s already been expanded to bring another 1000 visitors in groups by the end of the month.
But the latest decision will permit individual tourists to travel alone into the country for the first time since the pandemic began.
Only vaccinated tourists – and not those who have recovered from COVID – will be allowed in, The Jerusalem Post reports. They must present proof of vaccination before boarding their flight and take a PCR test.
CBN News met up with the first tour group allowed back into the country, towards the end of their trip, in the Old City of Jerusalem.
Pastor Tom Zelt has led dozens of study tours to Israel. But this time he and his students from the Concordia Seminary in St. Louis held that special honor of being the first group to return after more than a year of COVID-19 closures.
“We were honored in such a way that I didn’t even expect to be greeted with flowers and escorted through the airport. It was just incredibly special,” said Cara Berg, who is part of the group and had been here in 2017.
“We were welcomed really, really well by the Israeli government here. Everyone’s been incredibly friendly, and we really, really appreciate the opportunity and just how encouraging it is to have been in the place where Jesus walked and the prophets that told about him of old,” said Drake Peterson, a first-time tourist who was part of Zelt’s group.
“It feels almost like they’ve given us celebrity status. When we walked off the plane and there was all sorts of people waiting for us,” said Peter Frank, another first-time tourist in the group.
“It’s humbling to be here and realize what a difference we’re making. I know that our trip alone is not going to make that big of a difference but it’s a sign of things to come,” Frank said.
Israel Experts was the tour company that won the lottery to bring Zelt’s group.
“We really feel proud and privileged to bring to the Holy Land the first tourist group after the very long coronavirus Pandemic,” Adi Aharoni, CEO of Israel Experts.
“We are really looking forward to welcome more and more tourists from around the globe that can enjoy everything Israel can offer,” he told CBN News.
Hassan Madah, who heads the American Department of the Tourism Ministry said most Israelis are vaccinated and Israel is returning to normal with restaurants and tourist sites open.
Members of the group had to undergo COVID testing at the airport. A prerequisite for the visitors at this point is to be vaccinated.
“I hope that soon we can work on a different system where people can come also that are not vaccinated,” Madah told CBN News.
Zelt’s group visited the classic sights like the Sea of Galilee, the Pool of Bethesda and Church of the Holy Sepulchre, as well as the Western Wall and Temple Mount. They noted that one of the perks of being the first group back in was they didn’t have to battle crowds and wait in line.
“We are thrilled to be back in. It’s exciting to be the first group in, everybody’s been wonderful and hospitable to us and it’s just great to get back to the place where God did these incredible things for us,” Zelt told CBN News.
Due to the recent 11-day war with Hamas, Zelt’s group didn’t know until the last minute if they’d be able to come and some cancelled. But 12 came.
“The conflict before we arrived really put us in an emotional rollercoaster for a good week and then so finally being here it’s a huge relief that it is open and free,” said Berg.
“We had some hesitation because of everything that was going on here, fear for our safety and I know that my family was concerned and I’ve told them it’s the farthest thing from our mind while we are here,” said Frank.
Despite the ups and downs, the trip is really about one thing.
I love this place because it’s real, it’s authentic. The places that have impacted my faith and my children - it makes me emotional - is that Jesus really lived here and to be able to see these places and to have that validity of our faith,” said Berg. “Our faith is not by sight, but we do see things that help us believe, that backs our faith,” she added.
“We’re studying the scriptures. We’re studying where God’s plan came to fruition, where He placed Jesus to live and to die and rise again and that’s the bedrock of our faith,” said Frank. “That’s why we’re studying at the seminary is to share that message.”
Madah said in the year before the COVID-19 outbreak, Israel had some 4-1/2 million tourists, nearly a quarter of those from North America.
“We hope that soon we can also go back to 2019 where we have tourists coming without doing anything, just booking a flight and hotel,” said Madah.
“We are excited. We wish to see more people and we’re working on that, getting more people here. Let’s hope that people can come from the US and from other countries also and the cases will go down all over the world,” he added.
Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said in a letter to government officials Thursday that Israel is working on a process to allow vaccinated travelers from an approved list of countries “to enter Israel with a shortened process that will be put together in the coming days.”
The list of approved countries is yet to be determined by the Health Ministry, the Times of Israel reports.
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