Government Insists Israel's Tourism Capital Fairs 'Excellent' During the Coronavirus Crisis

Are hotels in Eilat fully booked or is the city on the verge of a catastrophe? Knesset debate shows it depends who you ask

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A beach walkway in Eilat, with the underwater observatory in the background, August 16, 2016.
A beach walkway in Eilat, with the underwater observatory in the background, August 16, 2016.Credit: Ofer Vaknin

It seems hard in recent days to understand whether the situation in Eilat is great – or horrible. Are the hotels in what is considered Israel's tourism capital at full occupancy or is the city on the verge of a catastrophe?

A special session of the new Knesset committee on coronavirus affairs headed by Likud lawmaker Yifat Shasha-Biton was dedicated on Wednesday to Eilat and the fall of tourism revenues there. The session revolved around how the pandemic damaged the city’s economy and led to very high levels of unemployment.

Pini Shani, a senior deputy director general in the Tourism Ministry, told the committee that the ministry “is pleased with reservation data for the summer. The hotels in Eilat are reporting an excellent situation.” For a moment, he gave the impression there was nothing to worry about.

But some other speakers sounded much less satisfied. Amir Hayek, the president of the Israel Hotel Association, said Eilat is dependent on tourism only, and without hotels there is no economic activity at all in the city. “Now we are at an occupancy of only 30 percent in the hotels,” he said, contradicting the representative from the Tourism Ministry.

Shasha-Biton said: “Every economic injury brought by the coronavirus to the country was felt in Eilat more strongly," citing "two previous blows" in the shape of the closing of Tel Aviv's Sde Dov Airport, which brought many tourists to Eilat, and a rough winter, which caused some damage to buildings in the city.

She went on to note that the city has unique characteristics in that it relies on the tourism industry, warning that it reached an 80-percent unemployment rate during the coronavirus crisis. “In over 30 percent of households there are two partners who are left with no income; budgets that were promised in a cabinet decision on strengthening Eilat back in August need to be transferred immediately,” she added.

Shasha-Biton also recommended renewing permits for Jordanian workers to enter into Israel and work in Eilat. “We must immediately bring in the Jordanian workers who are essential to the day-to-day activities which will also bring about the return of many workers from Eilat to the employment circle in the city,” she said.

Hayek from the Israel Hotel Association agreed: “Only bringing in the Jordanians will allow us to host and meet the high demand. The hotels are just waiting to receive the approval to bring back the workers and start to work,” he Hayek.

Eilat mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevy described the crisis: “The city of Eilat is closed off and closed up. The Sde Dov incident was a critical injury and we are still carrying the pain, now the coronavirus has arrived and the entire city is in a fear of collapse. Even if we return to a full routine, the city is carrying a serious wound.”

Halevy went on advocating for state investment in the city to endure the crisis: “The city of Eilat brings in millions to the state’s coffers – money for Eilat is an investment and not an expense. It is unimaginable that they will make the support and compensation for the city of Eilat the same as for the rest of the cities, when the city of Eilat is entirely based only on tourism.” 

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