Mathew Snowling sits at a café at the end of the Eilat promenade, sipping a glass of red wine and looking content. The Londoner has been coming to Eilat with his family every winter for the last 10 years. But Snowling finds himself nearly alone on the seaside promenade on this fine winter day despite the clear mild weather and the blue, glassy smooth sea. He is one of the few tourists who can be seen on any of Eilat’s beaches.
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This is not what Israeli tourism officials and hoteliers expected. Eilat is supposed to be at the height of a revolution designed to change the face of winter tourism to the city. Two months ago, Ryanair, the biggest low-cost airline in the world, started operating direct flights to this southern resort on the Red Sea. The Tourism Ministry made the offer even more tempting by paying airlines 45 euros for every customer flying directly to Eilat. The city’s Hotel Association added another 15 euros, bringing the total subsidy to 60 euros per tourist, amounting to 3 million shekels ($780,000) so far this season.
The arrival of Ryanair is the dream of tourist developers around the world, a magic formula for prosperity. In addition to Ryanair there are a dozen other airlines flying directly to Eilat, including Finnair, Israir, El Al, Arkia and Monarch. The flights arrive from Krakow, Kovno (Kaunas), Budapest, London, Paris, Berlin, Moscow, Helsinki and more. This winter 200 direct flights will arrive from Russia alone. A new airport is being built 13 kilometers from the city. It will start operating in two years. A large and combined effort by the Tourism Ministry, the Eilat Municipality and the city’s Hotels Association is underway to attract tourists from overseas during the winter season. But so far it’s hard to see results.
According to figures released by the Tourism Ministry,13,000 tourists have arrived by direct flight in the last two months. However, everyone I talked to this week while visiting the city said that no change can be felt yet. Tourists may be landing, but they quickly disappear from the city.
Shabtai Shay, head of the Eilat Hotels Association, calls the introduction of direct flights a “foundational event.” But the new low-cost flights pose some tough dilemmas, he says. “We need more time to arrive at definite conclusions but we believe that only a small portion of tourists who arrive here stay at hotels. Some stay at hostels or rent rooms while many, I’m afraid, don’t remain in Eilat. They go to Aqaba, Taba or northwards to the Dead Sea or Jerusalem,” says Shay. “In other words, we’re paying and someone else reaps the benefits. There are bad feelings among the city’s hoteliers. These aren’t the numbers we were dreaming of.”
Shay is anxious to see winter tourism take off. “We’ve fought for winter tourism for a long time. Relying on local tourism in the summer is unhealthy. We must reach a situation in which two thirds of tourists are local and one third from abroad. Currently only 15% are from overseas.”
What’s holding them back? “Diverse causes – the security situation deters tourists from coming to Israel. There is no convention center here yet and that makes it difficult to market the city. Competition with other destinations is getting tougher since fares around the world are cheap so that even a distant location such as Thailand is now competitive,” notes Shay.
Liz Dvir, from the Airport Authority’s spokesman’s office, says she doesn’t know whether tourism to Eilat is spilling over to other locations. She confirms that the number of border crossings to Aqaba and back has risen in recent months but it’s unclear if these are tourists, since many crossings are by Jordanians working in Israel. There is also some increase in the traffic to Taba, across the border with Egypt. These are Israelis (presumably Arabs) going to spend Christmas at hotels in the Sinai peninsula. Dvir urged me to provide her with numbers, assuming I obtained them, since she too is curious to know how many of the tourists arriving in Eilat stay there.
Eilat currently has 12,000 hotel rooms, a quarter of the total in Israel. No new hotel has been built there in the last 15 years. Two large chains control the city’s hotel market: Fattal, which operates nine hotels in the city and Isrotel, which has eight. Two thirds of the rooms are rated as 4- or 5-star rooms, but tourists arriving on Ryanair don’t come to such hotels. They are more budget-conscious and look for cheaper deals.
Shay, however, claims that the city offers hotels at attractive prices. “Our winter prices are competitive in comparison to those in Aqaba and even to some extent to hotels in Sharm el-Sheikh [in Sinai]. You can find a 3-star room here in the winter for $60. If they want even cheaper rooms they should probably not bother coming.”
Reuven Elkes, the CEO of the Fattal chain, says that he believes in the process that has started in Eilat but admits that there are no results yet. His chain takes in only a small numbers of budget tourists.
“It’s the correct move for the winter season but most of those arriving here don’t sleep here. We need patience and the new airport will be part of the process,” says Elkes.
Perhaps budget travellers don’t suit the city’s hotels?
Elkes dismisses that idea. “The basis of mass tourism around the world are people looking for 3-star hotels. They will be followed by people looking for 4-star and 5-star hotels too. They’ll come only if they see the city as attractive. The city’s image is critical. Current prices are the best we can offer. At lower prices we’ll lose money.”