Jerusalem believes Eilat will become an international gateway to the Red Sea, but local business owners remain somewhat skeptical
Andrius, a Lithuanian who did not want to reveal his full name, will take three separate flights in order to attend Eilat’s annual Bailando Festival, a salsa music event, in September.
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“I didn’t count how many hours it will take, but too many because you have to wait in-between the flights,” he told The Media Line in reference to the almost 4,800-kilometer (roughly 3,000-mile) journey.
But last week, the first-ever flight took off from Tel Aviv to Eilat’s yet-to-be-opened Ramon International Airport, which is slated to be officially opened in May 2019.
“The goal is to strengthen Eilat, and make Israelis prefer the city over other destinations abroad,” Transportation Minister Israel Katz asserted during the opening ceremony. The project also is meant to attract additional foreign tourists to Israel’s south, which, as things stand, can be difficult to access.
Israeli officials across the board hope to ease the travels of the likes of Andrius through the opening of the airport, to which additional flight paths will be added. Indeed Tourism Ministry officials anticipate an influx of European travelers, especially during the winter season.
“From all aspects the new Ramon Airport is a blessing for Eilat,” Liza Bvir, a Deputy Spokesperson for the Israel Airports Authority, told The Media Line.
Eli Lankri, the Acting Mayor of Eilat, credits a new promotional strategy, along with the new airport, for what he says is already a 73 percent increase in tourism. “We are going to add about 6,000 new hotel rooms,” Lankri told The Media Line, “as well as a new convention and sports center. Both are already under construction.”
Thirty years ago, Eilat attracted many international tourists according to Ben Julius, founder and CEO of Tourist Israel, who qualified that the Second Intifada—the violent period between 2000 and 20003 characterized by Palestinian suicide bombings—stemmed the tide of visitors.
Though the current political situation is far from stable, Julius is enthusiastic about the numerous ways the Eilat Hotel Association and the Ministry of Tourism is trying to boost tourism to the city.
“The policy here is a subsidy for international flights, which means there are no landing and tax fees. It’s a good one and it’s working,” he emphasized to The Media Line. Julius said the practice is common in other countries and if it works, it should be kept.
“So far we are seeing that the two-year tax incentive [to airlines] is giving a good return,” said Eyal Carlin, Acting Director of the Overseas Department at the Ministry of Tourism. He disagreed with the notion that local businesses are not benefitting from recent growth, but added that “with the growth in tourism, different services will be needed.”
In fact, despite optimistic projections by government officials, locals worry that the tourist industry will continue to struggle. Yariv Elkia, owner of Fun Club Eilat, a business that helps tourists plan their vacations in the city, told The Media Line that he has yet to see a notable increase in traffic.
Indeed there are travelers like Andrius who are not interested in visiting local shops, given the festival he is attending will take place inside one of Eilat’s hotels.
This is what Daniel, who owns a smoothie stand in the city, views as the major problem. “You can’t build the [tourism] sector from the top; you must first establish a foundation,” he affirmed, adding that another issue affecting local businesses is the “all-inclusive” trend popular among tourists.
“All the money generated goes to hotels because tourists only want to pay for the all-inclusive packages,” Daniel said.
On the other hand, Rany Sellam, Assistant Manager at Fun Club Eilat, told The Media Line that “without hotels, there is no Eilat.”
When asked about local businesses that are worried about not seeing a bigger piece of the tourist pie, Acting Mayor Lankri noted that many tourists prefer to stay in hostels. These cheaper accommodations allow them to “spend more money throughout the city.”
Andrius, the Lithuanian tourist, wishes the new airport was fully operational, as he is not looking forward to the long journey. Nevertheless, he stressed he is excited to attend another Bailando Festival in the picturesque desert city.
(Jinitzail Hernandez is a Student Intern in The Media Line’s Press and Policy Student Program)