01/13/2022, 19.41
HOLY LAND
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Despite Omicron, Israel reopens to international tourism and pilgrims

Although the new variant is spreading and the number of infections has reached a new record since the start of the pandemic, Israel reopened its borders last Sunday. A new website explains the new entry rules, which apply to the vaccinated or recently recovered only. For Israeli PM Bennett, the new wave is an “unstoppable storm”, but “There's no place for panic”. Keeping the economy open and protecting the vulnerable are the priority.

Jerusalem (AsiaNews) – Despite a rise in positive cases of COVID-19 and the new wave triggered by the Omicron variant, the Israeli government decided to reopen the country’s borders to foreign tourists, including pilgrims, whilst enforcing a strict protocol.

This is major news for the future of the Holy Land and of the economic wellbeing of the area’s Christians who rely heavily on proceeds from religious tourism and related activities. Before Christmas, when the border was shut down, they with despair and resignation.

Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett tried to allay fears among anxious Israelis. “There's no place for panic,” he said, adding that Israel was weathering an "unstoppable storm" of infections by protecting the most vulnerable and keeping the economy open

Israeli authorities expect Omicron to infect between two and four million Israelis, out of a population of approximately 9.4 million. The latest figure shows 44,000 new cases per day, the highest since the start of the pandemic.

Yet, the border, which was closed in late November, is now open again. Probably, the closure was expected to delay or perhaps postpone a new wave, certainly not prevent it, like in the rest of the world.

Currently, 254 patients are in serious conditions, including 84 critically ill and 63 requiring mechanical ventilation. For people testing positive, now the authorities require seven days of self-isolation rather than 10.

To jumpstart tourism, including pilgrimages, a website, Israel safe, was launched. Centred on the slogan Israel is open for vaccinated tourist, it provides useful information about travel, entry and permits in the country.

Now visitors to Israel must have been recently vaccinated or recovered from COVID-19, fill out an online form 48 hours before departure, take a molecular test 72 hours before the flight and one upon arrival, then wait in isolation for 24 hours.

Millions of pilgrims have been waiting for this; many of them lost the chance to visit the Holy Land during the Christmas holidays when the border was shut down in late November.

In 2021 Israel reported just over 401,000 tourist entries, less than a tenth of the record number of 4.5 million visitors in 2019, before the pandemic outbreak.

As the Omicron variant spreads, initially used as the reason to close the borders but useless in practice, Bennett said that Israel was in the midst of an unstoppable wave. No democratic country, an implicit reference to China, can reach zero contagions, he noted.

“We are in a situation that happens once in an era, and we are managing it in the right and responsible way,” he said, accusing his political opponents of trying to create “unjustified hysteria”.

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