Home Culture Travel Now’s the time to travel to Israel. Virtually.

Now’s the time to travel to Israel. Virtually.

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Tower of David Museum (Photo Credit: Ricky Rahman)

Stay home is the message governments are sending to their citizens the world over. But staying inside in self-isolation is hardly a reason to forgo travel. Pre-coronavirus, Israel was named one of the world’s top destinations for 2020 by international tourism industry experts and there’s never been a better time to soak up Israeli culture. Virtually, of course.

With the ongoing coronavirus outbreak and calls for social distancing, the global tourism industry has taken an enormous battering. In Israel, the Ministry of Health hammered in the last nail for the local tourist market on March 18, when it announced that it is restricting entry into the country by foreign nationals even if they can prove the ability to self-quarantine.

For many Canadians, and other would-be international travellers, this decision means Israel is physically off-limits for now.

Seeing Israel in person is a matchless experience. But giving up on visiting completely is unnecessary. Virtual travel to Israel is just a click away. 

Make sure you’re comfy on the couch because the list of things to see and do in Israel online is long.

Indeed, Israel is a destination for all with religious landmarks, fantastic beaches, historical monuments, national parks, mouth-watering food, and great nightlife. The official Israel tourism website has fun videos for each of these themes. (https://new.goisrael.com/international/Pages/Videos)

The official Israel YouTube channel also has short video clips of daily events that were a key part of Israeli life before this pandemic, including outdoor markets, archaeological sites, street food, and an inside look at startups. (https://www.youtube.com/user/Israel/videos)

Sadly, Israel shuttered its open-air markets in the last week of March. The lively markets were a calling card for the country before COVID-19. There are many online videos showing better times at these colourful outdoor stalls. If you’d like to see a real-time view, Google Earth includes the Jaffa Flea Market, Shuk Hapishpishim, on its list of Global Flea Markets. (https://earth.google.com/web/data=CiQSIhIgMWVjZmNhZTM3YTU4MTFlODlkZjBiZjIzZDUyZDI5ODM)

Travel Trailer Israel, as its name suggests, gives would-be visitors video previews to this country. The app (iOS and android) offers educational information about popular sites. The short videos are meant to entice a trip, but for now can be used to suffice a virtual tour. https://traveltrailerisrael.com/

The Holy City (Photo Credit: Blimey Nimrod Shanit)

Meanwhile, in Jerusalem, there’s a live camera feed on the Western Wall. Although somewhat sinister seeing the Old City bare of people at the moment, it is nonetheless a unique visual to see social distancing at this holy site. (https://www.skylinewebcams.com/en/webcam/israel/jerusalem-district/jerusalem/western-wall.html)

The National Geographic Society has a fascinating virtual tour of the Holy Edicule in the Church of the Holy Sepulchre that looks at the historic restoration of this Christian site and also shows how new technologies like LIDAR, sonar, laser scanning, and thermal imaging assisted in the restoration effort.(https://youtu.be/TCnwrqawDfM)

If you’d prefer to leave the city and get off the beaten track, the Israel National Trail awaits. This 1,100 km hiking path stretches across the country from top to bottom. Since 2016, the entire trail has been available on Street View on Google Maps. 

As the call for isolation and social distancing grows, world museums are closing their doors to the public and opening virtual tours to visitors online instead. Israel, a country with more than 230 museums, is taking part in spreading its art, science, history, design, architecture, and technology exhibitions to a wide-reaching audience.

The Israel Museum in Jerusalem (https://www.imj.org.il/en/) recently launched a section on its website dedicated to virtual tours of the museum’s collections. The museum staff is presently creating virtual tours of new exhibits that were meant to open but never did due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The Tel Aviv Museum of Art (https://www.tamuseum.org.il/en/), Eretz Israel Museum of Art and the six Haifa Museums (https://www.hms.org.il/eng) are all currently augmenting their online presence. On their individual websites, they note more virtual video and audio tours of exhibits are in the making. 

Down in the Negev desert, meanwhile, there are live guided virtual tours of Ben Gurion’s Desert Home, where Israel’s first prime minister David Ben-Gurion and his wife Paula Ben-Gurion lived. Visitors must register online (https://www.ben-gurion.co.il/virtual-tour/) for the Hebrew-language real-time tours of the couple’s little home.

And perhaps one of the most hyped new experiences of 2020, is the Israeli-Canadian collaboration, The Holy City VR, at the Tower of David Museum.

“This new immersive experience virtually places visitors in some of the most exclusive and hard to reach locations in Jerusalem as if they were actually there,” Nimrod Shanit, director and producer of The Holy City, said in a press statement. “With its collaborative inter-religious cooperation, The Holy City celebrates the rich cultural diversity of Jerusalem and fosters an inclusive sense of humanity.  We look forward to a time when visitors will be able to come to the Tower of David Museum to experience the site-specific experience.”

When making this online 360-degree virtual reality documentary of the Old City of Jerusalem, Israeli company, Blimey, and Toronto firm, OccupiedVR, used cutting edge 3D video and audio capture technologies that enable real environments to be captured in detail.

The project is supported by the Canada Media Fund, Ontario Creates, the Jerusalem Film Fund and The Tower of David Museum Innovation Lab.

The virtual tour will be available free of charge from the first day of Passover, through Easter, to the first day of Ramadan (April 9-24). https://www.tod.org.il/en/holy-city-vr/

Ramadan (Photo courtesy of Atta Awisat)

“These are challenging times for us all. My office overlooks the Old City of Jerusalem. Millions of prayers and dreams of people from all over the world have been caught between the towers, spires and domes of the city for thousands of years. The city has given hope and inspiration for centuries. At this time, I am reminded of the strength of Jerusalem and hope that the film The Holy City will be enjoyed by those from near and far, as it shows the Old City of Jerusalem in all its beauty and makes the holiest sites in Jerusalem accessible to all, especially at a time like this when access is so limited,” said Eilat Lieber, Director and Chief Curator of the Tower of David Museum.

“VR can enable emotions felt as close to possible as when one is physically present. We hope that for those looking for hope in these uneasy times … and for those that might turn to prayer and to Jerusalem – might find a little bit of hope when becoming immersed in the Holy City.”

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Viva Sarah Press lives with her family in Tel Aviv. She writes and gives talks about the creativity and innovation taking place in Israel and beyond.