Eilat, Once Hot Spot for European Tourists, Fighting to Draw Fun-seekers

An inter-ministerial panel will explore ways to bring additional flights and offer more attractions for visitors. Overnight stays by foreign tourists are down 42% since the year 2000.

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Eilat, the southern resort town, isn’t drawing foreign tourists like it used to, and the government is determined to do something about it.

Overnight stays by foreign tourists to Eilat has declined 42% since the peak year of 2000 to just 960,000 last year. Even during 2010 and 2011, which were strong years for foreign tourism to Israel in general, Eilat registered only a million overnight stays.

“We aren’t achieving a breakthrough,” said Shabtai Shai, the CEO of the Eilat Hotel Association, who is an observer on the committee. “In the winter of 2000, there were 42 weekly flights a week to Eilat that brought in 160,000 tourists, and today we have just 15.”

Eilat draws roughly eight flights a week from Russia, but none from England, the Netherlands or Belgium. “There are two flights from Scandinavia when there used to be 10,” he said.

The latest setback to Eilat came after Israel refused to grant the concessions that Ryanair, the giant European discount airline, had sought as a condition for starting direct service from Europe to the southern Israeli resort town.

The committee of tourism and transportation ministry officials will explore strategies to expand direct air service to Eilat and offer a wider range of tourist attractions. Officials also want to find ways to lure foreign tourists throughout the year, not just during the peak summer season.

“Eilat is a major tourist city for Israel and we are committed to keeping our finger on the pulse and adapt its development to changes occurring in the local and global tourism market,” said Amir Halevy, the Tourism Ministry’s director general.

“In recent years, the Tourism Ministry has invested more than 100 million shekels in tourist infrastructure in the city and tens of millions in marketing it around the world. Now what is needed is a full partnership among all the relevant tourism players to move the city forward.”

The panel is due to submit its recommendations in five months and will be able to draw on advice from experts in aviation and in the hotel industry in developing its plan.

“It could be that they were asking for too much,” Shai said of the conditions Ireland-based Ryanair was seeking, “but we’re not alone in this game. Airports around the world forgo fees to new airlines in the initial years if they bring in a specific number of passengers. Ryanair is a huge company with 400 aircraft and said it wants to fly to Eilat and then to Tel Aviv. It said that in the first year, it would bring 50,000 foreign tourists to Eilat [and] up to 120,000 within a number of years. But it won’t happen.”

Israeli is spending 1.7 billion shekels to develop the Timna airport north of Eilat to bring more tourists. But Shai said that without proper marketing and attention to flight scheduling, the airport won’t succeed.

Uzi Yitzhaki, the director general of the Transportation Ministry, said he had high expectations that Open Skies, the aviation-liberalization agreement with the European Union that went into effect this year, would bring a substantial increase in the number of airlines with service to Israel, including Eilat.