Israel wants to introduce direct flights to Australia and waive quarantine requirements for travellers by December, as countries that have so far successfully contained Covid-19 jostle to be the next destination added to the Australia-New Zealand tourism bubble.
Israel, seeking to make permanent the roughly 17 hour-direct flight from Tel Aviv to Melbourne or Sydney, is also working with other nations to position itself as a gateway hub for Australian travellers to transit quarantine-free on their way to European countries considered safe, such as Greece, Norway, Denmark and the Czech Republic.
Israel’s ambassador to Australia, Mark Sofer, said the plan would be “a win-win-win” for Australians and Israelis, noting both countries were working on plans to rescue their tourism-reliant economies and provide their airlines with commercially viable routes that would not require quarantine.
“This is the time to sit down and make the crisis into an opportunity,” Sofer said.
The feasibility of such a bubble would depend on the containment and avoidance of any second wave in either country, and would hinge on the successful removal of the 14-day quarantine period between Australia and New Zealand, Sofer said.
Costa Rica’s government is also exploring direct flights to Australia’s east coast and inclusion in a bubble agreement with New Zealand, with officials in the central American country – where 12% of GDP comes from tourism – working to have arrangements in place to welcome Australians quarantine-free by the beginning of 2021 “at the latest”.
The plans are emerging as a result of video meetings between leaders of the “first movers” group of countries that have contained the virus to the extent they are reopening their economies.
The group, led by Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz, includes Australia, New Zealand, Israel, Costa Rica, Norway, Denmark, Greece and the Czech Republic. Leaders first met at the end of April to begin sharing notes on reopening different sectors of society such as schools and medical facilities.
The first movers met most recently on Wednesday night Australian time, with Scott Morrison tweeting about the discussions for protocols to “re-open our borders”. The Australian government has been contacted for comment on the Israel and Costa Rica proposals.
Israel, which has recorded just under 16,800 coronavirus cases and 281 deaths, contained initial clusters, notably among its ultra-orthodox population. It was one of the first countries to enforce gathering limits, strict hotel quarantine and phone tracing of close contacts.
At the height of lockdowns, residents were not allowed to move more than 100m from their home. The country of just under nine million citizens now records between 10 and 20 cases a day.
Since coronavirus shut down Israel in March – with its unemployment rate peaking at 27% in late April – Sofer has been discussing the practicalities of direct flights with the national airline, El Al. He said the carrier, which had trial flights to Melbourne planned before the pandemic, had always considered Australian destinations potentially profitable, but less so than European and American routes. But with nowhere else to fly, Australia now made economic sense.
“[Officials in Israel] are now looking at giving a permit to those from better performing countries that they won’t need to isolate in Israel ... This is definitely the direction we’re talking about,” Sofer said.
He said it was “not a pipe dream” for the arrangement to be in place by December, and noted Australia would make “a very attractive destination at that time for Israelis as we go into our winter and you go into your summer. They’ll come and spend.”
Sofer said he hoped the arrangement would also lead to an overhaul of the visa regime for Israelis entering Australia, which is more onerous than for Australians making the return trip.
He said that as Israel was “about the distance limit” that most planes could fly from Australia towards Europe, there was potential for it to act as a Dubai or Doha-type hub between Australia and European first-mover countries.
“You can’t fly from Australia to Denmark in one flight. But an Australian can get on a direct flight to Tel Aviv, then onto Denmark, or other first movers countries, and not have to isolate anywhere ... It will take a long time before you can do that with a country like the UK,” he said.
Costa Rica, a nation of about 5 million that has so far recorded just 984 cases of Covid-19 and 10 deaths, is also vying for inclusion in an early travel bubble, with the nation’s ambassador to Australia, Armando Vargas Araya, telling the Guardian direct flights between the capital San Jose and Australia’s east coast cities were possible, at about 17 hours.
He noted the countries were currently signing a memorandum of understanding with Australia over airline codesharing services, and Costa Rica was keen to attract Australian tourists to fill its now “empty hotels”, and to send students to study in Australia, citing negotiations with Universities Australia.
Like Sofer, Vargas Araya noted visa requirements were much tighter for Costa Ricans visiting Australia than vice-versa, and said he hoped the travel bubble would lead to passport immunity between nations.