Eilat is preparing for an imminent Russian tourist invasion with new bars and restaurants targeting a Russian audience and Russian-speaking servers and bartenders in nearly every pub. Forty different kinds of vodka are being especially brought in, menus in Russian are being printed and two Russian-language newspapers are now delivered to local hotels.
Between 25,000 and 30,000 Russian tourists are expected to fly direct to the southern resort city by the end of April on about seven weekly charter flights from Moscow and Saint Petersburg.
The Russians began coming in large numbers in October, after the visa requirement for Russians visiting Israel was waived. It should be noted that about a quarter of these land at Uvdat Aiport and head straight for the Dead Sea without even entering Eilat.
According to the general manager of the Eilat Hotel Association, Shabtai Shay, the Russians come not only to lie in the sun, but also to travel and to shop, spending an average of $1,000 per person during their stay in Israel on accommodations, food and other expenses.
"These are not the oligarchs who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on jewelry, but they do buy," Shay said. "In another month or two we'll be better able to assess their spending patterns."
In late November, 280 Russian travel agents from GTI Travel descended on Eilat for a visit. "If they fix their sights on Eilat they can fill it up all on their own," Shay said.
"Moscow became a strategic destination for us because of the mutual visa requirement waiver. We're currently operating two charter flights a week to Russia, and in 2009 we plan to double the number of flights," said Zohar Andelman of Israir.
According to Israel's Airports Authority, in October 59,248 passengers traveled from Russia to Israel and back, compared to 38,765 in October 2007. Russia is the seventh largest international destination for flights from Ben-Gurion International Airport. Since the start of the year, 424,925 passengers flew from Russia to Israel and back, 26.1 percent more than in the equivalent period in 2007.
The Tourism Ministry is also preparing for increased tourism from Russia. In late September it launched a new marketing campaign in Moscow slated to run through December, at a cost of about NIS 1 million. The total 2008 marketing budget for the ministry's Moscow bureau is about $3.5 million.
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