How Did Jordan Overtake Israel in the Race for Foreign Tourists?

Aqaba has grown rapidly in recent years while development in Eilat has stagnated.

Beside the palm trees at the entrance to the Jordanian city of Aqaba lays a system of purple pipes, purifying sewage water for use in the city's public parks.

It is a project funded by the European Union as part of the bloc's aid to developing countries. Israel, with its advanced economy, does not receive such funds. But during a visit to neighboring Eilat last month, it was not clear which city was part of a developed country and which was part of a developing country.

In 2008, I traveled to Aqaba to study the anticipated development of the tourist industry of our eastern neighbor. The Jordanians spoke of projects costing $6 million, thousands of hotel rooms, wide marinas, blue lagoons, villas for the rich - like a Dubai next to the palm orchard of Kibbutz Eilot.

Two years ago, these were only grand promises from officials but in the meantime it has become clear that Aqaba is taking the steps to become the top tourist destination in the Gulf of Eilat, leaving Israel's southern hot spot behind.

The expansion of Aqaba is being funded by investors throughout the Middle East.

One example of the development of Aqaba is the Tala Bay resort, 18 kilometers south of the city toward the Saudi Arabian border. In the resort, one can find elegant white vacation villas, all of them already purchased. A Radisson Hotel opened there last year and in November, a Movenpick Hotel was officially opened by King Abdullah. A Hilton Hotel will open in 2011.

But Tala Bay is not the culmination of Aqaba's development plan. There are two more similar resort projects in the works and there is no reason to believe they will not come to fruition.

The sad part of this story is Eilat's inability in the past two years to match Aqaba in the development race. In Aqaba, a new convention center, golf courses, water parks and brand name hotels have been built and the port has been moved south. In Eilat - nothing.

In 2008 there were 2,300 hotel rooms in Aqaba. Today there are 4,200 in 39 hotels. In Eilat, there has been no increase during the same time frame. Eilat has 10,900 rooms in 50 hotels.

In Aqaba there are 3,700 rooms under construction and 3,800 more in the planning stages. In Eilat, they have been promising since 2006 to issue tenders for the Eastern Marina.

Of course, Eilat does have more hotels and occupancy than its neighbor. But experts say it is only a matter of time before Eilat is overtaken.

Already more tourists visit Aqaba annually - 241,000 compared to 220,000 in Eilat in 2009.

This is not by chance. In 2001, the tourism race began when King Abdullah designated 375 square kilometers in Aqaba and the surrounding area to be an economic zone with independent local control.

The Jordanians predict that by 2020 Aqaba will have 12,750 hotel rooms and 900,000 tourists annually. In Eilat there is no long-term development plan and the hope is that tourism will increase by 25 percent in the coming years.

In Eilat, officials are concerned by the situation.

"One can only be jealous of Aqaba," said Mayor Eli Lankri. "There has been stagnation in Eilat for many years. Tourism is the air that Eilat breathes. The government here needs to act quickly or there will be reason to worry. The test now is one of results - whether we can put plans into operation."

And what are these plans? To build 2,200 hotel rooms in the Eastern Marina, a golf course, and a 1,200 room luxury hotel in the northern part of the city, with a neighborhood of luxury villas nearby.