‘They are burying us’: Tourism sector workers fume at government offer to ‘retrain’

Israeli tour guides and operators who have seen their professional lives devastated by the pandemic over the past two years were presented with a new plan by the Finance Ministry on Wednesday night: train for a different career.

The proposal came days after Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman drew condemnation for saying during a cabinet meeting Sunday that tour guides, operators and travel agents should “start changing professions,” a comment that prompted a demonstration Monday by over 300 people working in the sector. Tour organizers and guides, bus operators, hotel workers, and staff from local attractions participated in the protest at the entrance to Ben-Gurion Airport.

Israel last month closed off entry to foreign nationals in a bid to slow the spread of the highly infectious Omicron variant, dealing yet another blow to an already ailing tourism industry battered by the pandemic. The vast majority of tourists have effectively been barred from entering Israel since right before the country’s first pandemic lockdown in March 2020. Israel briefly reopened its skies to foreign tourism in early November, allowing in people who had been vaccinated or who had recovered from the disease.

Prior to the pandemic, Israel had a booming tourism industry that saw about 4.5 million visitors to Israel in 2019, a record number that was worth over $7.2 billion to the economy. In the first 11 months of 2021, just about 370,000 foreign tourists were allowed entry, according to the Finance Ministry.

Many workers in the sector, which employed about 140,000 people directly as of the end of 2019 (according to the Tourism Ministry) and another 100,000 or so indirectly, have been living off a mix of government grants, unemployment benefits that dried up in July, savings, and occasional odd jobs.

One of the organizers of Monday’s protest, Yoav Rotem, a tour guide since 2009, told The Times of Israel this week that he and his family have been managing on “savings, bank loans, and help from friends.”

“The tourism sector isn’t dead. The government is trying to bury it alive,” he said, fuming at the Finance Ministry plan to offer NIS 30,000 toward training and scholarships for tour guides, organizers, and agents who opt to switch to another vocation.

“It doesn’t offer any real solution. They [government authorities] never spoke to us or consulted with us at all. They are completely ignoring the human beings in this sector. It’s like we are transparent. They are burying us,” said Rotem, a 39-year-old father of two who lives near Jerusalem.

Tour guide Yoav Rotem with a group of tourists in Jerusalem, pre-pandemic. (Courtesy)

Rotem has worked in the tourism sector for the better part of two decades, he said, earning a good living and supporting his young family. “I fell in love with tour guiding and completed the Tourism Ministry guiding course in 2009,” to become a licensed tour guide, he said. Since then, he has come to specialize in tours that offer historical perspectives from the time of the Second Temple, and the evolution of wine. He said he has been trying to build a business that focuses on wine tours and wine tasting “but it is impossible without support.”

Rotem said he had 19 days of tour guiding lined up for December, which would have seen him work for an extended period away from his family but would have been a good source of income.

“Guiding is a passion, a calling. I spent two years studying for this and invested over a decade building my career in this industry,” said Rotem, who is a member of Moreshet Derech, a union for Israeli tour guides that numbers about 1,700 licensed professionals.

The Finance Ministry plan is “a slap in the face,” he said. “Investing in the sector will cost less than rebuilding it. This government doesn’t understand anything about tourism. We need real support — not to go and train in unrelated professions.”

Rena Magun, an American-born, Jerusalem-based organizer who built a business alongside her husband, Rabbi David Ebstein, offering bar and bat mitzvah events and tours for mainly North American and British families, told The Times of Israel that she was “furious and puzzled” by the Finance Ministry proposal.

“Are they trying to destroy the tourism industry? There’s no relief here. People are in complete despair. It may be a matter of time until something tragic happens,” Magun said, explaining that in WhatsApp groups for professionals in the industry, the mood is dark.

A bat mitzvah celebration led by Rabbi David Ebstein. (Courtesy)

She too called the plan a slap in the face to people like herself and her husband who have spent years building their lives and careers in the industry, facilitating memorable right-of-passage trips for kids and their families.

“We had a wonderful, thriving business… bringing kids here to celebrate their bar and bat mitzvahs with their families and celebrating Israel. And it was shut down overnight,” said Magun.

For many of these families, these trips were “the highlight of their lives and a huge investment.”

Magun said that to earn a living, her husband agreed to take a job as a pulpit rabbi in Chicago, which saw him live away from his family for 11 months. He returned to Israel this summer just as things were looking up but then the COVID-19 Delta wave began, followed by Omicron.

The couple, both in their 60s, devoted their lives to their business, working since 2008 mainly by word-of-mouth, she said. “How are we supposed to change professions? What are we going to do? Go into high-tech? It’s a chutzpah to tell people to get new jobs,” she said, radiating her incredulity of the government approach.

Though grateful for some of the government support, Magun said she and her family have been “living like college students, barely squeaking by,” and not spending on anything that is not “life or death.”

She also said the entry ban on non-Israelis has been especially damaging to relations with Diaspora Jewry, particularly those with relatives in Israel, echoing a sentiment expressed this week by Diaspora Affairs Minister Nachman Shai.

“It is just devastating to olim [immigrants to Israel] and their families abroad, they can’t understand the sheer disregard. It is causing irreparable damage,” said Magun.

A bar mitzvah celebration led by Rabbi David Ebstein in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

She and others have argued that it is entirely possible to allow tourists to enter safely and revive the industry. “Look at Greece! Greece had 6 million tourists this year, including Israelis. Are we so different? Why is this country shut up so tight?”

Forging new paths

Alex Stein, a 40-year-old British-born father of two living in the Jerusalem area, had a thriving career as a tour guide for about five years before the pandemic hit.

“Things were going really well, and I was set to have my busiest spring yet in 2020, right before the lockdown,” Stein, who specializes in tours focused on history and politics, told The Times of Israel.

Tour guide Alex Stein leads a group of tourists in Jerusalem before the COVID-19 pandemic. (Courtesy)

His very last job was with a group of about 25 Christians from Seattle visiting the Holy Land for a full week. Stein said he had a sense of what was coming, as a history buff, but his group didn’t quite get how serious it was back in March 2020.

After that, “it was cancelation after cancelation,” he said, adding that he has since given very occasional three- to four-day tours and has even tried virtual tours, but has mainly been “lucky to get government support.”

Realizing that his career was not going to bounce back any time soon, Stein said that this past summer he began “half-heartedly applying to different jobs.”

Stein had previously done some writing and translation work and is one of the founding editors of the Tel Aviv Review of Books, an online, English-language magazine that covers culture and politics.

“So I went back to do translation work. I make a living and I am very lucky. There are people in their 50s and 60s who don’t know what to do now,” he said.

Stein said he misses tour guiding, which he took very seriously, but will “never rely fully on it again.”

Despite years investing time and money in tour guiding, which he said was seen as a “national role and a serious profession,” the lesson for Stein has been to “not put your eggs in one basket.”

Nicola Simmonds, a British immigrant to Israel who has been a tour guide since 2000, said it was “difficult to see a future.”

Tour guide Nicola Simmonds guides a group in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

“During the first lockdown last year, for everyone, time stood still. In a lot of ways, that’s where we tour guides still are,” she told The Times of Israel this week.

Simmonds earned a degree in Theology and specializes in guiding Jewish and Christian groups across the country “to show them the beauties of Israel and help people enhance their faiths.” She has essentially been out of work since March 2020, taking on “small gigs” here and there, while receiving unemployment benefits until this past October. She has since been navigating new initiatives like sewing, translating and virtual guiding

“I feel that I have done all the right things: university (more than once!), professional training for a vocation devoted to promoting the country, paying taxes, and that I now am invisible to the state,” said Simmonds, who has lived in Israel since 1992.

“‘Just do something else’ is very dismissive,” she said of the government approach, and it fails to take into account “the emotional investment that tour guiding demands.”

Simmonds, like other guides, misses being out on the road and interacting with people from across the world. She said she just really wants the “skies to reopen and to get back to work.”

Ambassadors to the world

For Yuval Bigio, working as a tour guide often “felt like being an ambassador, and sharing Israel with the world.”

Bigio, a Kfar Saba resident and a father of two, has been guiding foreign tourists full-time since 2016. Fluent in six languages (English, Spanish, French, Portuguese, Creole, and Hebrew), he was able to work with a wide range of groups from across the world, a majority of them Christians from Latin America and the United States.

“Before the pandemic, I was fully booked into 2022,” Bigio told The Times of Israel this week. In November, when Israel briefly allowed entry to foreign tourists, he managed to guide nine groups.

Tour guide Yuval Bigio, back row in the center, with a group of visitors at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. (Courtesy)

But since benefits stopped in July, he has had to look elsewhere, taking on odd construction jobs when available, and “hoping for better days.”

“I miss my career and I loved it. I was good at it. I felt a sense of fulfillment. I carry different cultures in me and I can greet people in multiple languages, showing them this beautiful country,” he said. “I just want to go back to work.”

Both Bigio and Simmonds likened tour guides to performers who thrive on being in front of audiences.

“I’m still hoping things get better and that all this time studying for my license and taking exams and putting in money wasn’t wasted. I’m almost 48, so many tour guides I know are close to retirement. They are in terrible situations. What do they expect people to do?” asked Bigio.

He and his wife, who previously worked in the aviation industry, are “living on fumes, basically,” he said.

A rainbow over the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem, taken by Nabil, a tour guide based in the Old City. (Courtesy)

Nabil, a Jerusalem-based tour guide since 2010, has also been wondering what to do next. He declined to give his last name for privacy reasons.

“I worked all over the country guiding groups and I greatly enjoyed it,” said Nabil, a member of a small Coptic community in Jerusalem’s Old City whose family has been living there since the 1800s. He has worked mainly with Christian groups, guiding them on pilgrimage tours and other types of faith-based trips.

A tour group led by Nabil, a tour guide based in Jerusalem’s Old City. (Courtesy)

“My specialty is of course the Old City, since I was born and raised here. I take them to see the holy sites, the bazaars, the rooftops, and the little-known, best eateries around here,” he said.

He and his family had “high hopes and a lot of patience and understanding throughout the pandemic.” They thought of it as a “rest period” and a respite from the extended periods away from home while guiding.

“But I may have waited too long and am now deep in thought about what to do. We have already gone through some savings and we are limiting expenses. There will be no Christmas presents this year,” said Nabil.

He too criticized the government’s approach to tour guides and to the wider tourism industry.

“To think that everything we have built is destroyed, it’s very upsetting. Israel is the Holy Land and it is very important to everyone, to people of all faiths. People have been waiting their whole lives to come here,” he said, describing a particularly emotional tour with an 86-year-old Catholic tourist from Ohio, a carpenter by trade, who burst into tears while seeing some of the sites.

“I wanted to do this until I retire,” Nabil said.