January 20, 2022

Room 9 AV

Genuine Travel

Tour guides scramble to survive after 18 months without tourists

For Anglo tour guides who have been unemployed since March 2020, the government’s recent decision imposing a seven-day quarantine requirement for visitors from the US – which resulted in the cancellation at the beginning of August of 42 10-day Birthright trips – was the final nail in the coffin of a dead industry.

Compounding the gloom caused by the weeklong isolation order, the US CDC recently warned against travel to Israel due to the rise in coronavirus cases as the Jewish state experiences another wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths, while at the end of June the Finance Ministry limited Bituach Leumi unemployment benefits to out-of-work guides older than the age of 60.

Every English-speaking tour guide who spoke to In Jerusalem reported that they are experiencing difficulties.

FLORIDA NATIVE Hannah Rosenberg, 30, who completed a two-year certification course at the Hebrew University leading to a series of Ministry of Tourism licensing exams in February 2020, is currently grilling hot dogs at Zalman’s in downtown Jerusalem for NIS 32 per hour. She remembers how the good times – when guides earned NIS 1,000 per day plus tips and commissions from businesses – suddenly ended.

“March 18 (2020) was my last tour,” she recalls. She was two days into a seven-day tour with an American family visiting Jerusalem and the Galilee when a phone call from the US State Department cautioned the family to leave immediately, lest they get stuck without a flight out. “It was a lie,” shrugs Rosenberg – the first of many she has heard from government officials.

“I applied to Bituach Leumi, and was denied because I had not been working for the previous six months – during which I was studying for the tour guide exam.”

An ever-resourceful veteran of an IDF combat intelligence unit, Rosenberg kept applying and after nearly a year was given NIS 1,200 monthly beginning in February. That payment ended in June.

“My parents are helping,” she said. “It’s the first time since I was a kid. It’s a hard thing to ask.”

“I have emails almost every day from clients. I’m waiting to know when the skies will open.”

Notwithstanding the hardship, Rosenberg has no plans to leave Israel. 

“I’m here for good,” she said, adding she still plans to pursue her dream to become an archaeologist.

“I don’t volunteer anywhere,” she said. “I wish I did. I don’t have time [to join a dig], working 12-hour shifts.”

The way we were: A group of tourists listen to their guide inside the Western Wall Tunnels (credit: HADAS PARUSH/FLASH90)

MARK SUGARMAN, 68, who made aliyah from Boston in 1971 and became a licensed guide in 1992, has had a relatively easier time. He’s simply become retired – but not by choice.

His last tour was in March 2020.

“We finished the tour, the typical 10-day Christian pilgrimage tour of the holy places,” he recalled. “It was grueling. It was like being in the army and doing miluim (reserve duty). I was exhausted. I’m getting too old for this stuff. I went into a voluntary two-week quarantine. I didn’t know if I was infected, and I didn’t want to infect anyone close to me. I just was exhausted. By the time I came out of quarantine, we were in the first lockdown. So I was stuck at home with my wife and dog in Talpiot.

“I was knackered,” he said, using a word he learned from his British clients. “I applied for everything. A month later, I turned 67, so I officially reached the age of retirement, and I got Bituach Leumi. I couldn’t get unemployment, even though I could document I had lost groups. But because I took Old Age pension, I wasn’t eligible. Whatever I get, I’m grateful. My [second] wife and I split expenses. We’re both economically independent. We’re set financially. And in the last year, I received an inheritance.

“When I was working, I saved money. The last four years before COVID were a fat period. Now it’s lean. I’ve been in the business for close to 30 years. I remember the Second Intifada from 2000 to 2004, and that was a harder period than now. Everyone had to scramble at the time. So I know how hard it is for my colleagues who have young families.

“I spoke to one [tour guide] friend, Matthew, and he’s building houses. Another friend, Graeme, has been landscaping his garden around his apartment. I haven’t been that social. I’ve become a recluse. It’s been a challenge filling up the days and staying out of trouble. I’ve returned to the habit of reading. We had previously tossed the TV, but I’ve been watching lots of historical and theological videos on my computer. For a while, being a big Boston/ New England sports fan, I would get up in the middle of the night to watch one of my favorite sports teams. But that’s when there was live sports. We’ve been traveling a lot around the country. I haven’t been outside Israel since I was in Zanzibar in January 2020.”

What of the future? 

“I would like to go back to the States for the unveiling of my mother’s matzeva (tombstone) in November. But it’s problematic at this time. It’s been hard. My mother’s funeral was on Zoom. Since the pandemic started, I lost three family members and two friends. We were cut off from each other physically. People dying were isolated from their loved ones. Together with the loss of income, that’s been the hardest part.”

DANIEL GUTMAN, 41, has worked as a tour guide since 2009. The Dallas, Texas native remains philosophical about the pandemic and loss of income.

“I’ve had a little bit of work here and there with some people visiting family, and seminaries and yeshivas – which needed two to four guides per capsule. So that helped a little. But basically, I haven’t worked in the last 18 months. There are a lot of factors at play. When God wants to close things down, He does.”

Gutman said he stopped receiving Bituach Leumi at the end of June. 

“These last six weeks have been challenging. The government bailed us out for 18 months after they put me out of work. It was enough to survive. Now I’m back to March 2020, to square one, figuring out what I’m going to do. I‘m dipping into my savings. It’s challenging. Although I’ve taken a hit financially, I’ve had an 18-month sabbatical to be with my family. I’m looking forward to getting back to showing people the country I love.”

Even during times of war and terrorism, tourists used to arrive, he said. Now the government has closed the skies.

“Is there [national] value in tourism? If so, the government needs to support tour guides. Money has gone to bail out tour operators and hotels. But what about us?” he asked.

Gutman loves his profession and said he has no plans to retrain. 

“I am optimistic this will end.”

CHICAGO-BORN Ami Braun, 43, another veteran guide, has also scrambled to survive since Bituach Leumi benefits ended in June. He recently sent an email promoting on-line sales of the “four species” for the upcoming holiday of Sukkot. Braun has also conducted some virtual tours for the Beit Avi Chai community center. He too said the end of Bituach Leumi has brought a lot of financial stress.

“I have been a licensed guide for 14 years. This is my passion. I am doing whatever I can to stay afloat.”

Braun has returned to guiding part-time at the Kotel tunnels. 

“The pay is like a student job. It’s not something to live off of.”

DEAR READERS, you may wonder about yours truly, a licensed guide for more than a decade.

For the longest time after March 2020, I used to dream every night about guiding. It was a great adventure showing tourists my country, Judea and Samaria, Jordan and Egypt, and I touched the heart of a lot of people who fell in love with Israel. But those days are gone. I’ve been able to devote my time to editing a book about Hebron’s Jewish community, and to researching a study about Nazi collaborator Hajj Amin al-Husseini, the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who spent the years 1941-1945 living in Berlin and aiding the Third Reich. I’ve had clients send me on assignment to Portugal and to Germany in May and July.

But now travel has all but ended. Every summer since 2005 my wife and I have visited family in Canada. This year was the first time we haven’t gone. We’ve cut back on all expenses, including hosting Shabbat guests.

Still, money is only a bunch of numbers and zeros. I consider myself fortunate. I have my good health, interesting research, food in the fridge, a wonderful wife and friends. Nothing else really matters as much.