Exclusive: Follow One of the First Americans Returning to Israel
Two of the first Americans to visit Israel upon its reopening were from our Inspiration staff. Our owner, Steve Dick, and Executive Vice President, Stephanie Smith, recently had the opportunity to journey back to one of our favorite places on earth and document all the exciting aspects of traveling back to God’s chosen land.
We asked Stephanie to keep a short journal for us about the experience. Although she’s definitely not a stranger to Israel—visiting countless times over the years—this was a journey she’ll never forget.
June 3, 2021, Traveling to Israel
I’m a seasoned traveler and rarely get anxious about traveling; it’s second nature to me! But with all the new protocols and unknowns, I was reminded of what less frequent international travelers must feel all the time. The last time I was in Israel was in March of 2020. We’d finished touring with 700-plus travelers when the pandemic brought the travel industry to a screeching halt. All our travelers made it home safely, and I honestly thought I’d be back in Israel just six weeks later, which of course didn’t happen.
Now, over a year later, Israel requires visitors to have had the COVID-19 vaccine and take a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test within 72 hours prior to departure to travel to the country. I completed every required step and boarded a plane mostly filled with Israelis who live in the U.S. I’m pretty sure Steve and I were the only U.S. citizens on the plane. Masks were required on the flight, which we could remove to eat and drink.
June 4, 2021, Arriving in Israel
The flight was uneventful and the airport was quiet upon arrival. Passport control and luggage pickup were normal as we made our way to a temporary hall in the airport to take another PCR test. The appointment was prearranged when we checked in with the airline. It was fast and easy. Once cleared, we were free to leave the airport.
That evening, I took a short walk to check on some friends at a nearby hotel. I hadn’t seen them since May 2019! What a joy to be able to hug them for the first time in two years. I cried tears of joy as I walked back. I knew I had missed Israel but hadn’t realized just how much my soul was yearning for this moment.
June 5, 2021
Because Israel’s vaccination rate is the highest in the world, they reopened earlier than most other nations. I’m so grateful to be back. We took it easy today while managing our jet lag. Our first stop was to the No. 1 coffee chain in Israel, Aroma, and I enjoyed my first iced coffee of the trip. There is something unique and delicious about Aroma’s iced coffees that I have not found replicated anywhere else.
The streets were quiet on this Saturday because it was Shabbat, the day of rest in Judaism. There were fewer cars on the roads and most shops and restaurants were closed. Unfortunately, some shops—those that primarily serve tourists—are still closed from the pandemic. They are eager to reopen as tourist traffic increases.
Most hotels didn’t reopen until March of this year. Despite this, the country is optimistic about travel returning, and it was invigorating to hear how our colleagues and tour guides used the slower pace of 2020 to learn and innovate.
As we wrapped up the day with a few friends, experiencing the renowned Israeli hospitality felt like coming home.
June 6, 2021
We drove to Tel Aviv to meet with our colleagues there and see progress on a brand-new hotel. Sunday is the first workday of the week in Israel, so the highways were packed with cars and the streets were bustling. Sunbathers flocked to the beaches, as a lot of people are still out of work, and surfers caught waves in the deep blue waters of the Mediterranean.
At dinner we saw Issa, a familiar waiter we’ve known for years. He was happy to see people from the United States back in his homeland, and we were equally thrilled to see him.
June 7, 2021
Today was a full day in Jerusalem, and our first stop was with Israel’s Ministry of Tourism. We wanted to hear about their plans to restart travel, and they also wanted to hear from us. As we are one of the top tour agencies in Israel, they respect our opinion and asked us to help them understand how Americans will respond to certain health protocols and restrictions. We were honored to share our expertise, including all we learned from our travel survey last year.
This evening, we attended the wedding of dear family friends. There were over 400 people in attendance. It was incredible to gather with hundreds of people and still feel safe. It was like a big family reunion! We saw so many friends: bus drivers, tour operators, pastors and community leaders. What a gift to be together after so much time apart.
June 8 – 9, 2021
We spent two days in Tiberias, on the shores of the Sea of Galilee, a prime Israeli vacation spot. We stayed in the Gai Beach Hotel, which has become a second home to me. The owners took advantage of the downtime in 2020 and fully remodeled the hotel over the past 18 months. The rooms are fresh and beautiful; they feel like new, but the friendly atmosphere and gorgeous lake views are the same as ever.
There is so much new construction in Israel. We got a hard hat tour of a new luxury hotel in Tel Aviv and also got to see the location of a brand-new hotel that is being built in Capernaum and will have a panoramic view of the Sea of Galilee, the Mount of Beatitudes and Mount Carmel. Our dear friend Samuel also showed us a new restaurant he is building right on the lake. It’s nearly finished and ready for a new tourist season.
June 10, 2021
After a final night in Jerusalem, we packed for our return flight home. Despite my worries at the beginning of the trip, the Israel I rediscovered was exactly as I had remembered it—only now it has remodeled hotels. I was delighted to see friends and colleagues and visit my favorite restaurants and coffee houses. But even more thrilling was encountering, once again, the hospitality of the Israeli people. They cannot wait for American tourists to return.
I can’t wait either. The next time I travel to Israel will be later this fall. However, this time, I’ll be accompanied by a group of believers. I’m excited and I hope you’ll join me!
Button: Israel Tours