Passover in the time of coronavirus: Cancellations mount at kosher resorts

By BEN HARRIS

NEW YORK (JTA) — For the past three years, Esther Possick has avoided the hassle of hosting Passover at her Long Island home by traveling to kosher hotels in foreign locales.

In 2017, she spent the holiday at a resort in Stresa, a resort town on Lake Maggiore in northern Italy not far from the Swiss border. The following year she tried out Rimini, a coastal city on the Adriatic. Last year she opted for a program in Spain.

Sunrise in the Canazei area, which hosts a kosher Passover package that is being forced to shut down due to coronavirus concerns. (Frank Bienewald/Getty Images)

This year, she was planning to spend the holiday at a seafront hotel in Milano Marittima, a resort area three hours southeast of Milan, capped off by a weekend in Rome. But in late February, as Milan became the epicenter of the coronavirus crisis in Europe, bringing life in Italy’s second most populous city to a halt, Possick started having second thoughts.

On Monday, when Possick’s air carrier announced it was suspending flights to Milan, Possick couldn’t hold out any longer.

“I kept saying, OK, this is going to pass. Something is going to change,” Possick told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “But it doesn’t seem to be changing for the better.”

As the coronavirus spreads across the globe, the effects are being felt not only in the public health arena but in business, education and tourism — and a small but significant subset of the Jewish world: Passover vacations.

The eight-day holiday, with its extensive home cleaning preparations and succession of major meals, has emerged as a popular time for getaways. The Passover travel industry has ballooned into a major business, with over 170 programs this year offering kosher meals in nearly every corner of the planet. Jews from Israel, the United States, Europe and elsewhere are willing to pay an often hefty fee to avoid the drudgery and inconvenience of holiday prep.

As of early March, at least three programs — two in Italy and one in Thailand — have been canceled because of the virus. Others are keeping a wary eye on the situation.

“The buzz from consumers has been that they’ve been nervous,” said Doni Schwartz, who runs the website PassoverListings.com, an advertising and review platform for the holiday’s programs. “They’ve put down a lot of money. A lot of them are scrambling for new programs in the U.S.”

Leisure Time Tours, an American operator based in New York, had to cancel its Rome program due to concerns about the coronavirus. The company, which also runs programs in Prague, Florida and New York, was able to transfer some customers to its other hotels while offering full refunds to the rest, managing director Robert Frucher told JTA.

The Israeli operator Gem Kosher canceled its sole Passover program, in Pattaya, Thailand, offering partial refunds to the hundreds of guests who had booked rooms at the Renaissance Pattaya Resort & Spa, 100 miles south of Bangkok. Owner Aharon Lipner said the cancellation was a big financial hit for his company, but he had no choice.

“I don’t want to put any of my guests at even 0.0 percent, at any risk,” Lipner said. “This virus, it is, let’s say, it’s more than just what people know about. It’s much worse.”

In Italy, the European country worst hit so far by the virus, more than a dozen programs are planned for 2020. Several operators said they remain committed to holding their programs and are keeping a close watch on the situation, but others have been forced to throw in the towel.

One is Belinda Netzer, who owns My Kosher Hotel in the Dolomite Mountains of northeastern Italy. The hotel was fully booked throughout the winter ski season through Passover, which begins this year on the evening of April 8.

But the vast majority of Netzer’s clients are Israelis, and after Israel’s national air carrier, El Al, announced in late February that it was halting all flights to Italy, the cancellations started rolling in. That forced Netzer to nix the program. However, she is not canceling another program she is hosting in Rimini, Italy.

“I feel I’m living in wartime,” Netzer said. “It’s like a tsunami mixed with an — I don’t know. It’s like a catastrophe. It’s a really terrible feeling.”

Tour operators that decide to cancel programs typically offer full refunds to their patrons. And industry insiders say that even those that have not canceled are often inclined to return what they can, if only to preserve goodwill among their clientele.

Possick said her operator, Koltuv Events, offered a 50% refund and two years to put the remaining money toward a future program. Koltuv owner Itzhak Sakav told JTA that only about 20 people had canceled this year and over 400 people were still planning to attend the company’s two Italy programs.

Toby Schwartz was planning to attend a Koltuv program in Italy, but she has asthma and her mother is elderly, and they decided not to take the risk. The two decided in February to switch to a Passover program in South Carolina.

“Normally if I was planning a vacation, I’d wait a little to see what would happen,” Schwartz said. “But because it’s Passover, you don’t want to get stuck with no plans.”

For operators like Koltuv that run just one or two programs annually, a single bad year can spell disaster. They typically spend the entire year planning for Passover, which between the logistics of delivering kosher food to exotic locales and the multiple requirements of traditionally observant Jewish traveler is both complicated and pricey.

Profits are often made only on the last 10% to 15% of rooms booked, meaning even a small drop in participation can make a world of difference.

“Often in this industry, those final rooms can be the difference between a loss and a profit,” said Raphi Bloom, the co-owner of TotallyJewishTravel.com, which claims to be the largest Jewish travel site on the internet. “Running a Pesach program is not cheap for the operator. If people are hesitant at this stage, that’s where it could have an effect.”

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