Israel welcomes unvaccinated tourists as Covid-19 measures eased

Change comes weeks before important religious events that are expected to draw thousands of pilgrims

Passengers arrive at Israel's international airport near Tel Aviv on March 1, 2022. AFP

Israel opened its borders to unvaccinated visitors on Tuesday, the latest step as the country eases two years of pandemic measures.

Previous plans to welcome tourists were affected by the outbreak of the Omicron coronavirus variant.

Visitors must now take a PCR test before travelling and on arrival, and then enter isolation for up to a day, regardless of their vaccination status.

“We are seeing a steady decline in the morbidity data; therefore, this is the time to gradually open what we were the first in the world to close,” Prime Minister Naftali Bennett said when he announced the change last month.

The move comes weeks before important religious events that are expected to draw pilgrims to the Holy Land. While Muslims will mark Ramadan next month, Jews will celebrate Passover and Christians will observe Easter.

Israel, which also controls the borders of the Palestinian territories, barred entry to foreign visitors at the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

Vaccinated tourists were allowed to enter the country last November, but the highly infectious Omicron variant caused the government to reimpose the ban.

The move was a significant blow to residents of Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, which is known as the birthplace of Jesus. Pilgrims had been expected to flock to the city as well as other sacred sites in Jerusalem and Nazareth for Christmas.

Itamar Grotto, a former associate director of Israel’s Health Ministry, said border restrictions were “ineffective”.

“We know that, like lockdowns, we can only slow down the entrance of the disease but we can’t stop it,” he said on Wednesday.

“It’s now irrelevant to differentiate between vaccinated and non-vaccinated [travellers],” he said, as both can carry coronavirus.

Vaccinated visitors have returned in recent weeks as coronavirus spread rapidly among the local population.

Health Ministry figures show that 1,946 people have died from coronavirus in Israel so far this year.

In the first two months of 2021, Israel registered 2,391 deaths among its 9.4 million residents.

Although cases are currently falling, the prime minister did not rule out reimposing border restrictions in the future.

“We will continue to closely monitor the situation and in the event of a new variant, we will again act quickly,” he said.

Israel has scrapped almost all of its pandemic restrictions, including its “green pass” which proved vaccination status or recovery from coronavirus. The document had been used to gain access to public places such as gyms and restaurants.

Updated: March 02, 2022, 6:06 AM