The Jerusalem Post
With no flights and no government support, tour guides are losing hope
With no incoming tourists and no more government support, representatives from the tour guide industry protested outside the Knesset Tuesday, saying they have been abandoned by the government’s latest coronavirus restrictions.
“Since March 2020, I have been completely unemployed, as have many of my colleagues, because of the coronavirus restrictions,” said Elena Drubachevsky, a tour guide and organizer of the protests. “But a year and a half later, we are standing here at a protest tent, while the rest of the economy seems to have reopened. There are no tourists coming in, and we have no means to survive the coming months.”
While most of the economy has been recovering rapidly from the crisis following its mass vaccination program, the inbound tour guide industry is in its worst crisis yet, sandwiched between two different recent government decisions.
Earlier in the summer, the Tourism Ministry presented a timeline in which the country would be completely opened to foreign tourists by the beginning of July. However, as the country’s low infection numbers started to climb and concerns grew over virus variants, that date was officially moved back to August 1, and there is no reason to think it won’t be delayed again until after the peak tourist season. For tour guides specifically licensed to guide foreigners in different languages, that means there are zero potential customers available.
At the same time, new Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman has taken a hardline approach to canceling the grants and benefits the government provided throughout the pandemic. As the state’s emergency safety net provisions expired at the end of June, Liberman ruled that certain unemployment benefits would not be available for people under 45, and that grants for independent workers would come to an end.
That has left many tour guides with no means of supporting themselves, and no more of the government support that has kept them and their households afloat until now.
“The Finance Ministry is refusing
to approve any further support because they don’t want to say they are making exceptions to its decision to cancel benefits,” Drubachevsky said. “But we are the only ones being hurt. Even in the tourism industry, the hotels have reopened, Birthright tours have restarted because they are legislated under a different ministry, and some tour operator companies have been able to alter
their businesses. But we have no options available. What will we do next week when we’ll have to pay the bills?”
Protesters said members of the Knesset Finance Committee had told them last week they would find a solution for them, but there was little optimism as they gathered outside the Knesset ahead of the committee meeting Tuesday. The meeting ended mid-afternoon without a decision to renew the guides’ benefits.
“We want two things to happen,” said David Schoenfeld, a tour guide of 25 years. “First, that we open the skies again and allow tourists to come in with tour guides, following all the corona rules about capsules and group sizes. And second, we are asking the Finance Ministry to continue the grants and unemployment benefits for tour guides. We don’t have anywhere else to turn at this point.”
According to Moreshet Derech, the organization that has been hosting these protests for the past month, Israel has about 6,000 tour guides licensed to work with foreigners in different languages. But the potential damage to the economy from abandoning them is far greater.
“The tourism industry brings in more than NIS 25 billion a year, one of the largest sectors of the economy,” said Avi Abutbol, another tour guide at the protest. “The damage to the economy, and to the general Zionist ideology, is tremendous.
“This is not like the kind of government grant that helps a company pay to build a bigger factory,” Abutbol said. “This is a case where people won’t be able to buy food because the government closed the airport. I’m 66 years old, and I’ve been doing this for many years. I can’t just look for something else to do now.”