Middle East

Israel to allow limited entry of foreign tour groups in May

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A man surfs in the Mediterranean Sea amid Israel's third national lockdown to curb rising coronavirus disease (COVID-19) infections, at a beach in Tel Aviv, Israel January 19, 2021. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

JERUSALEM, April 13 (Reuters) - Israel will start allowing the limited entry of vaccinated tourist groups next month as its own inoculation campaign has sharply brought down COVID-19 infections, an official statement said on Tuesday.

The return of foreigners after Israel had closed its borders at the outset of the pandemic in March 2020 would boost the country's economy, which contracted 2.5% in 2020, and battered tourism sector. Israel's jobless rate stands at around 10%.

All foreign visitors will be required to present a negative PCR test before boarding a flight to Israel, and a serological test to prove their vaccination upon arrival at Ben-Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv.

A statement from the health and tourism ministries said "a limited number of groups will start to arrive on May 23" in the initial phase of the plan. No exact figures were given.

At a later stage, group entry will be expanded and individual travellers will also be let in, with Israel's health situation determining the timeline, the statement said. A detailed outline would be issued in the coming days.

"Israel is the first vaccinated country, and the citizens of Israel are the first to enjoy this result," said Health Minister Yuli Edelstein. "After opening the economy, it is time to allow tourism in a careful and calculated manner."

The Religious Zionists of America (RZA)-Mizrachi said it plans a delegation to Israel in late May with up to 50 members.

"As more Americans are getting vaccinated and contemplating travel, we wanted to send a strong message to the Jewish community that ... your priority should be to get back to Israel," said RZA vice president Rabbi Ari Rockoff. "As Israel relaxes its travel restrictions, we wanted to be the first organised trip back home."

Israel began to reopen its economy a month ago on the heels of a world-beating inoculation drive, in which some 5 million of the country's 9.3 million population have already received two doses.

There are currently 3,369 active COVID cases, and daily infections have fallen to around 200.

Last week, after a public outcry, the government started allowing non-Israeli, immediate relatives to visit Israel for special events such as births and weddings.

After a record 4.55 million tourists in 2019, just 832,000 visited in 2020 - mainly in January and February - resulting in a loss of $5.3 billion of revenue last year, according to the Tourism Ministry.

"It is time that Israel's unique advantage as a safe and healthy country start to assist it in recovering from the economic crisis, and not only serve other countries' economies," said Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen.

"Only opening the skies for international tourism will truly revive the tourism industry, including restaurants, hotels, sites, tour guides, busses and others looking to work and provide for their families."

The Bank of Israel forecasts Israeli economic growth of up to 6.3% in 2021 if the pace of vaccinations is kept up. The International Monetary Fund estimates 5%.

Reporting by Steven Scheer Editing by Jeffrey Heller and Mark Heinrich

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