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Travel To Israel Has Plunged, But A New U.S. Route Provides Hope

This may sound illogical, but last Monday, even though most travel between the U.S. to Israel is banned and El Al Israeli Airlines has temporarily ceased flying, Jill Daly had a good day.

Daly is Midwest region director for the Israel Ministry of Tourism. Last Monday, United Airlines announced that it will begin Chicago-Tel Aviv service in September.

“The thing that’s great here is that United is announcing this new flight during the time of Covid because they understand the resilience of the U.S. market,” Daly said.

“People will be traveling again,” she said. “There is pent-up demand and Israel is a market that offers meaningful, inspirational travel.”

United, easily the leading carrier between the U.S. and Israel, also resumed thrice weekly San Francisco-Tel Aviv service on Wednesday. It said that in August it will boost Newark-Tel Aviv to ten from seven weekly flights and in October it will resume Dulles-Tel Aviv flights.

Israeli-bound travelers retain their eagerness. A group of about 50 people from Michigan recently postponed a trip scheduled for the last week of July. The group had made all of its ground arrangements. “They held on to the last minute,” Daly said. But Israel has not yet lifted the travel restrictions it imposed in March.

Looking at the bright side, Daily said, “If things open up, we will have a very busy October-November-December,” adding, “We communicate constantly with our travel partners. A lot of groups are still planning to go.”

 It is an antiquated notion that most visitors to Israel are Jewish. In 2019, according to questionnaires submitted to departing passengers in Tel Aviv, 51% were Christian, 39% were Jewish and 10% either specified other religions or did not specify. Daly herself is an Irish Christian who views Israel as her second home.

Travel from the U.S. to Israel was headed up, growing each year between 2011 and 2019, when the total was about 969,000 visitors, up 49% over 2010. In the first quarter of 2020, arrivals totaled 166,000. In the second quarter, arrivals essentially ended.

“Until corona hit, we had record breaking tourism every year,” Daly said. “We were on target to hit a million.” The U.S. is the biggest single market for Israel tourism, she said.

Overall, visitors to Israel, including cruise ship passengers and one-day visitors, totaled a record 4.6 million in 2019, up from 3.4 million in 2010. In the first quarter of 2020, arrivals totaled about 786,000.

Besides United, Delta and Air Canada are maintaining service to Israel, but the number of passengers is limited given that the only people who can enter Israel from the U.S. are dual citizens, diplomats and U.S. citizens returning home to Israel. All arrivals must quarantine for 14 days. 

 Delta flies from JFK, while Air Canada flies from Toronto. American had planned to launch DFW to Tel Aviv this September, but has postponed flights until 2021.

El Al had been flying from Tel Aviv to Boston, Las Vegas, Miami, Newark and Orlando, and had planned to launch Chicago service in March.

El Al will restart, Daly said, but the date is uncertain. The Israeli government is likely to be the principal owner. “That is not the intent for the long run, but we will do that for the short run,” she said.

Meanwhile, European carriers are gradually resuming service to Israel. Nearly two dozen flights, most bound for Europe, were scheduled to depart Ben Gurion International Airport on Sunday. But so far, there is no date for lifting restrictions on arriving U.S. passengers.

Daly, based in Chicago, is among those who eagerly await the new service.

“It will be a big thing to use Chicago as a gateway,” she said. “Tour operators say people coming from the center of the country need two layovers to get to Israel” because many Midwest cities have flights to Chicago, where Israel-bound passengers would connect to Newark or Dulles.

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