burgas - David Bachar / AP - March 25 2011
Burgas Photo by David Bachar / AP
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David Bachar / AP
Rhodes Photo by David Bachar / AP
David Bachar / AP
Malta Photo by David Bachar / AP
David Bachar / AP
Eilat Photo by David Bachar / AP

Come Passover, the People of Modern Israel have typically flocked to Turkey for an economy vacation. But these days Turkey is off the Israeli tourist's map and instead they're heading for alternative destinations, from Crete to Rhodes to Eilat or Bulgaria. It isn't cheap.

Shabi Shay, general manager of the Eilat Hotel Association, predicts occupancy of around 85% at the Red Sea resort city's hotels this Passover, down from 90% last year, because the upheaval in Egypt has discouraged incoming tourism to the area in general. But that's still a handsome occupancy rate and again, it's no incentive for the hotels to lower prices.

Eilat has 12,000 hotel rooms, Shay says, and projects that 60,000 to 70,000 people will be visiting the city this Passover season. If you want to book a room, you'd better hurry and prepare your checkbook: He thinks that among the 5-star hotels, anywhere from 70% to 90% are already booked solid. Actually, the ones who booked early are usually organized groups, unions and the like: Private people tend to wait for the last minute, says a source in the Eilat tourism business.

That may be ill-advised. Even tourism companies that tried to book a "bank" of rooms in Eilat at discount rates for Passover 2011 as early as January were turned down. It wasn't that the rooms weren't available: they were. But because Turkey had become an non-option, the hotel managements were confident they'd get bookings at regular prices from unions and organized groups: They felt no need to rent out whole banks of rooms at discount rates to tourism companies.

10% more than last year

But Eilat isn't the only option for a household seeking a Passover vacation at a sumptuous hotel, with swimming pool and activities. "Because of Turkey, we're seeing an increase of 5% to 10% in demand for other destinations in the Mediterranean area, such as Varna and Burgas in Bulgaria, or the islands of Crete and Rhodes," says Gilad Brovinsky of tourism company Diesenhaus. He personally thinks it a little surprising given that prices have risen about 10% this year.

One reason for the increase in prices of tour packages is of course the price of oil, which has pushed up the price of travel. But no less key is the disappearance of Turkey from the Israeli tourist's agenda. Israelis had flocked there: As many as 400,000 a year would vacation in Turkey. No other nearby destination can cope with such hordes, which means demand is high, which in turn drives up prices.

As for the situation in Egypt, the political upheaval did no favors to the neighboring nations' tourism industries. But it didn't help Israeli tourist destinations either, in contrast to fond hopes: Israel is more expensive, Shay explains. A week's vacation in Egypt can cost 700 euros but a week in Eilat will run at 1,200 euros. "Egypt has 100,000 hotel rooms compared with 12,000 in Eilat, and also, demand among the locals for hotels is low. They have no choice but to offer low prices," Shay says.

But there's an upside, he claims. "Travel agents know that even if Eilat is more expensive [than Egypt], they'll put it in their list of destination choices next winter season at relatively affordable prices that suit the European tourist."

NIS 2,000 just for the flight

This year the Seder is on a Monday night, so the tourism industry is expecting two waves of vacations, one starting that Monday night and lasting through to Thursday or Friday that week, and a second wave starting Thursday or Friday and lasting through to the end of the holiday, the following Sunday or Monday.

How much can a family expect to spend on an Eilat vacation, compared with other possible destinations? We checked the costs of staying at 5-star hotels for three nights including the weekend. Including flights, the prices start at NIS 7,000 for a couple with two children, but can reach NIS 14,000.

Tour packages for three nights to Crete or Rhodes can range from NIS 6,000 to NIS 10,000 for a four-person family. Burgas in Bulgaria has only one 5-star hotel that the tourism agencies offer in a package deal: It will cost NIS 8,000 for the weekend.

Prices of tourism packages to Malta for three nights at the end of the Passover holiday are highest, starting at NIS 10,000, including only breakfast, not full board.

Note that flying to Eilat jacks up the price of the vacation package for four by NIS 2,000. The cost in one direction during the Passover holiday runs at NIS 280 to NIS 310 per adult, and NIS 224 per child. Families wanting to fly to Eilat for the vacation would do well to check deals with Arkia or Israir in advance: The savings can be considerable. But if you're buying a package deal including flight, the choice of hotel and dates is limited.

And what about Turkey? Demand for tourism packages to Turkey among the Jewish population has evaporated, though Israeli Arabs still head there freely. The result is that prices are substantially lower than elsewhere in the Mediterranean basin, and compared with Eilat. You can get an all-inclusive four-night vacation at a 5-star hotel, including the flight, for NIS 5,000.