Yesterday's tragic traffic accident near the resort city of Eilat occurred only one month from the start of the winter holiday season and is expected to affect the flow of tourists from Russia, who have only recently begun to discover the southern city's charms.
The blow to tourism is feared to be even greater because many of the bus's passengers were travel agents who were on their way to tour the city. They were then expected to help open Eilat up to the Russian market, after the recent dropping of visa requirements for Russian nationals entering Israel.
The group traveling on the bus had arrived on a direct charter flight of Russia Airlines from St. Petersburg to the Ovda International Airport outside Eilat, one of five such flights a week run by it and two other lines, Globus and Vim Air.
"The flow of tourists on direct flights from Russia to Eilat began only this year and we were happy that the flights were pretty full," Dave Laufer, the director general of Laufer Group International, which provides the charter flights with ground services, told Haaretz yesterday. " The flight yesterday was just another regular flight. It departed for St. Petersburg with a another group of Russian tourists a few hours after the accident."
In November, 8,148 Russian tourists arrived in the Red Sea port on 58 direct flights, more than twice as many tourists as in the corresponding month in 2007.
"A new wave of tourists began arriving in Eilat in October and will continue until March 2009," according to an Israel Airport Authority report published in November. "The Eilat and Ovda airports - part of the array of tourist destinations on offer to European tourists on direct flights - registered 225 arrivals of flights in November, constituting a rise of 44.2 percent in air traffic."
While the bulk of foreign tourists who visited Eilat in November came from Russia, the desert city also received 3,128 tourists from France, 1,266 tourists from the U.K., 1,018 Poles, 1,235 Finns and 295 Germans.
Since the beginning of 2008, a total of 91,462 passengers, on 1,484 international flights, have passed through the Eilat and Ovda airports, some 25 percent more than last year.
"This event will no doubt have a negative effect," Shabtai Shay, director general of the Eilat hotel association, said. "The problem is that Israel is treated differently than other countries, and judged more harshly. This is not a terror attack but a traffic accident that could have happened in any other country, like Egypt, Spain or India. I hope it's kept in proportion."
Shay said that the number of tourists from Russia had already been expected to drop, even before the traffic accident, because of the global financial crisis, which has struck Russia considerably hard.
Ami Etgar, director general of the Israel Incoming Tour Operators Association, told Haaretz that his organization would assist the victims and their families abroad as much as possible.
The Ministry of Tourism has also opened an emergency room in Jerusalem and is receiving calls at 972-(0)2-666-4358.
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