I live from tourists. 80% of our business is tourists. We can’t survive without them.”
Harvey Sandler stands in front of the new location of Harvey’s Smokehouse.
Israel’s skies will finally be opened to tourists from overseas on July 1, and for many Jerusalem businesses, it couldn’t happen soon enough.
“I live from tourists. 80% of our business is tourists. We can’t survive without them,” said Shmuel Katan, owner of the Iran Bazaar souvenir shop on the Ben Yehuda shopping strip. “At first, they said they would open things up in May, then June. Now it’s going to be July. Jerusalem is ready and waiting for tourists to come back.”
“The coronavirus has been the toughest thing our business has ever experienced,” Katan said. “We have been open here since 1957, and we have endured terrorist attacks and suicide bombers, but never anything like this. I hope it is behind us.”
Israel’s successful vaccination campaign has made it a highly-sought tourism destination as people around the world look to travel following a year under coronavirus closures. Earlier this month, the Tourism Ministry ran a tourism pilot program in which it allowed a limited number of tour groups to enter. Now, the country is set to open its doors to vaccinated tourists, as well as children up to age six, from the beginning of July, although many of the logistical details have yet to be announced.
The reopening has months business owners more optimistic than they have been in months, after a long period of forced closures and national lockdowns.
“We are hoping that people will start coming back to Israel, and that we’ll have a great summer,” said Harvey Sandler, owner of Harvey’s Smokehouse, a popular steakhouse in the center of town. “I think a lot of people are going to come. It has been difficult to get in until now, but people want to come back as soon as possible. Tourism is a big part of everybody’s business in Jerusalem, and if it really comes back, things will improve a lot here.”
Harvey’s recently relocated to Jaffa Street, in the square next to the Mike’s Place sports bar, an area Sandler admits has had a reputation for being filled with rowdy partygoers from nearby pubs. “But Mike’s Place just bought two of the bars across the way, and we intend to raise the level of the square here so it’s not filled with loud music and hookahs anymore. We’re planning to make it much classiee
Arnon, who owns a branch of the popular Cafit cafe on neaby Shlomzion Hamalka street, is also excited for tourists to come back, although he is a bit more cautious in his expectations.
“Our business runs on tourists,” he said. “Before the pandemic, we began working with a lot of the nearby hotels and vacation rentals that don’t have their own cafeterias. They give their guests vouchers, and they come here for breakfast every day. Because of our location, next to the Mamilla mall and on the way from Ben Yehuda to the Old City, we are more reliant on tourists than other cafes.”
Arnon doesn’t think business is going to pick up immediately. “I think July and August are already lost,” he said. “People are going to need a bit more time before they are ready to travel. But from September, we expect to be back at full capacity.”
Yittie, one of the owners at Taco Louis, a Mexican restaurant in the same neighborhood, also expressed optimism.
“A nice portion of our business is tourists. I hope that evenings, in particular, will start to get busier as more tourists arrive. Lunchtime has been strong as ever because there are a lot of customers from nearby businesses. Nighttime has been more problematic for restaurants here, because not as many people are coming out for dinner, and I hope that will get better.”
Like the restaurants, consumer stores are also waiting for tourism to come back. “At least 20% of my business depends on tourists. They also buy the most expensive hats, and they are the most knowledgeable about what hats they want,” said Yaacov Peterseil, owner of the Sherlocks Hats shop. “Traditionally, May and June are our best months, but I have a feeling that this year, July and August will be our best months, and we’ll be able to make up for lost time after being closed for so many months already this year.”