Israel has unveiled plans to reopen the country to tourists for the first time since the start of the pandemic last year, although only those vaccinated against the coronavirus will be welcome this summer.
The first 40 tour groups are set to touch down in Israel on May 23, while individual visitors will have to wait until July at the earliest before they can travel.
“It’s a hopeful day in my view,” Israel’s tourism minister, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, said in Tel Aviv on Tuesday.
“I think it is about time that the huge advantage that Israel has as a healthy and vaccinated destination [is harnessed],” she added.
Israel has vaccinated nearly 55 per cent of its population and coronavirus infection rates have plummeted, allowing the country to open hotels, restaurants and tourist attractions, with some restrictions.
Those slated to arrive in late May will join bus tours, which have been preapproved by the Israeli government.
“These groups are easy to monitor as they have a schedule that is organized and we know where they are at every time and place,” said the tourism minister.
Visitors must be fully vaccinated with drugs approved by US and European regulators, in addition to undergoing coronavirus tests before boarding their flight and on arrival.
Farkash-Hacohen did not detail where the first arrivals will be travelling from, although Israel plans to launch advertising campaigns in Dubai, London and New York.
“We see great potential in the Emirates, also because of the strength of the Emirati tourists, but also because the Emirates is a centre for many international tourists,” the tourism minister said.
More than 38 per cent of UAE residents are fully vaccinated against coronavirus, according to the Our World in Data platform from the University of Oxford.
Under the current proposals, additional tour groups will be allowed to visit in June and individual tourists can arrive from July.
The tourism scheme risks being scuppered by objections from the Health Ministry, however, which on Tuesday called for the plan to be delayed by a month.
Israel has severely restricted entry to the country since last March and health officials are concerned a change in the rules could lead to the spread of new coronavirus variants.
Farkash-Hacohen said her ministry’s plan does not involve the Palestinian Authority, which governs cities in the occupied West Bank such as tourist hotspot Bethlehem.
Around 7 per cent of Palestinians in the West Bank have received a vaccine, according to the Palestinian Health Ministry.
Israel has given doses to Palestinians with Israeli work permits, although it has faced criticism from rights groups for failing to further expand its vaccination drive in the West Bank and Gaza.