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Students from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis became the first tour group to open Israel up to travelers.

Israel’s first tour group after Covid arrives from Missouri

Israel has reopened to international tourists for the first time in over a year. The Israel Ministry of Tourism announced that the flight arrived from Newark International Airport in New Jersey and included a group of seminary students from St. Louis, Missouri.

Upon the flight’s arrival at 4:20 P.M. Israel Time (8:20 A.M. U.S. Central time), Israel’s Minister of Tourism, Orit Farkash-Hacohen, greeted the Missouri group with flowers in celebration and gratitude, kicking off the official return of international tourism to the country.

The seminary students prior to their departure from St. Louis on Wednesday. Photo: Concordia Facebook.

A new beginning

“Today marks the start of a new “post-COVID” era. You are the first organized tourist group to visit Israel in over a year, since in March 2020 Israel shut its doors to tourists, and I am very pleased to be here with you on this momentous occasion, said Farkash-Hacohen. “Israel has overcome COVID, after being the world’s leading country to vaccinate its population, and we are back to normal—restaurants, hotels, concerts, markets, national parks, and sporting venues—everything is now safely open. You are the first of what I am sure will be many tourists and we are all excited to have you here!”

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This first group of tourists consists of 11 American theological students from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, who are escorted by their professor. The students will be in the Holy Land through June 10 and will visit many sites popular with Christain and include travel to the Negeve.

“This is an incredible opportunity to go and see a place where God has done incredible things,” said guest instructor and tour leader  Pastor Tom Zelt.

The group’s arrival marks the official start of the country’s pilot program and over the next few days and weeks, 19 additional groups from around the world will arrive in Israel. The plan is to increase the number of groups allowed into the country and soon reopen to individual international tourists over the summer.

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Last Wednesday, the Ministry of Tourism invited tour operators to apply to be one of the first 20 to bring in a group. The quota was filled in under nine minutes. Dozens of others tour leaders joined a waiting list in case there was an opening.

The response was heartening to both Israelis and Israeli public officials, anxious to see the faithful return en masse.

“Israel is an attractive destination, with unparalleled historic and religious sites sacred to three religions, vibrant cities, amazing food and warm people. I am sure you will enjoy it all,” Farkash-Hacohen told the Missouri group.

Orit Farkash-Hacohen

Groups and vaccinations

In the interest of avoiding the spread of COVID-19, all visitors initially arriving in Israel must be fully vaccinated, have taken a PCR test that proved a negative result. They will also be tested for antibodies upon arrival.

“This is just the beginning of the long-awaited return of tourism to Israel – we plan to continue rolling out next steps and advancements in our phased approach over the coming weeks,” said Eyal Carlin, Israel’s Commissioner of Tourism in North America. “Israelis are ecstatic and are ready, with open arms, to welcome international visitors back to the country.”

In 2019 Israel hosted over 4.5 million foreign tourists, a record for the country of just 9 million residents. At leas half of all tourists entering the country are from the United States.

–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice