The first group of foreign tourists in over a year touched down in Israel on Thursday after the cabinet started opening its borders following a steep drop in coronavirus cases.
Small groups of inoculated foreign tourists – up to 30 people – have been allowed to enter as of last Sunday and the Tourism Ministry expects twenty such groups to come from countries, including the United States, Germany and Britain under a pilot program until June 15.
The ministry then hopes to expand the number of groups and, in July, allow individual tourists.
Shortly after 4 p.m. (1300 GMT), United Airlines flight 90 from Newark, New Jersey landed with twelve Christian pilgrims, men and women of different ages, studying theology at the Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, Missouri.
They were welcomed by Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hakohen, who said: “You are the first of what I am sure will be many tourists returning to the Holy Land.”
Led by Pastor Tom Zelt of the Prince of Peace Church, the group plans to visit Jerusalem, national parks, Nazareth and Christian sites, the Tourism Ministry reported.
Farkash-Hakohen told the group that “Israel is … healthy and vaccinated. Everything is now safely open.”
Israel had shuttered its borders to foreigners at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic back in March 2020. A swift vaccine roll-out that has inoculated most adults has brought the number of active infections to just 428 nationwide.
This has paved the way for the country to allow in inoculated foreigners and revive its tourism sector, although officials remain cautious over possible new variants.
Tourists are required to show negative PCR tests before flying and to take another test at Ben Gurion Airport after landing in Tel Aviv.