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After last week's bus accident that resulted in the deaths of 24 Russian travel agents on their way to Eilat, hoteliers in the southern resort now fear that the suspension of charter flights from Russia beginning January 15 will hurt tourism from that country. They fear that tickets booked on commercial flights will be more expensive than those from charter airlines.

According to Roni Pivko, CEO of the Club Hotel Eilat chain in Eilat and a member of the Eilat Hotels Association, the aviation agreement between Israel and Russia specifies that direct charter flights from Russia to Eilat are to end on January 15. After that, each country is to select one commercial carrier. There is to be a maximum of six weekly flights from Russia to Israel, and they can depart from Moscow only.

"In effect that will raise the price of tickets from Moscow to Eilat and back, since the prices of the commercial airlines are much higher than those of the charter airlines. It will destroy competition and will have a major effect on tourist traffic from Russia to Eilat. We have requested an urgent meeting with the ministers of transportation and tourism on the issue," Pivko said.

In the past few months Russians have been the largest single group of foreign tourists in Eilat, representing 30%, 37% and 47% in September, October and November, respectively. Pivko attributes the city's popularity with Russian tourists to the harsh Russian winter, the cancellation of visa requirements and the fact that Israel's large population of Russian-speakers means that Russian tourists feel at home here.

Pivko said he has not heard about many cancellations in the wake of last Tuesday's fatal crash. "I hope the accident will not affect Russian travel to Eilat. We have New Year's celebrations planned in the hotels that many tourists from Russia are expected to attend. Two days later there will be an international boxing match between Russian and Israeli champions in eight different weight categories, from flyweight to heavyweight, with international judges."