For vacationers seeking a fine dining experience in the Red Sea resort of Eilat, this was the place to go. On a typical evening, a medley of French, Russian, English, Italian and Hebrew could be heard around tables at this restaurant overlooking the North Beach Lagoon, as diners feasted on the eye-popping creations of chef-owner Lior Raphael. Reservations for a table on the weekend needed to be booked weeks in advance.
Back then, it was known as Whale. After being shuttered for more than two-and-a-half months, the restaurant reopened this week. It has a new name now, meant to reflect an entirely new concept: Hamburger at the Whale. Instead of more than a dozen starters and over a dozen entrées on the menu, there are now just five options – all of them burgers.
“When we first went into lockdown because of the coronavirus, we told ourselves that if everything went back to normal within two weeks, we’d go back to doing what we always did. But if it took two months, we’d need to do some rethinking,” Raphael recounts. “Two months went by, and we understood that our regular clients weren’t coming back.”
Since reopening, Raphael’s restaurant – probably best described now as a high-end burger joint – has been full both nights. Not with the usual foreigners or even out-of-town Israelis but, for a change, locals.
Probably no place in Israel has been as devastated economically by the coronavirus as Eilat, a city of some 60,000 located at the southernmost tip of the country. Since roughly 80 percent of the local workforce lives off of tourism, when Israel went into lockdown, Eilat – best known for its coral reefs, dolphins and mellow beachside vibe – lost its main source of sustenance. All but one of the city’s 50 hotels shut down completely, as did all the restaurants, bars, shopping malls and water sport centers.
“In contrast to other parts of the country, in Eilat there was really no need to issue stay-at-home orders,” says Yossi Chen, CEO of the Eilat Tourism Corporation. “Once the tourists stopped coming, people in the city had nothing to do but stay home.”
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And unlike the rest of the country, which started returning to normal about a month ago, Eilat was more or less in lockdown until a week ago, when hotels started opening.
Eilat has experienced times of crisis before, says Shabtai Shay, general manager of the Eilat Hotel Association, but never anything of this magnitude. “I’ve been involved in marketing Eilat for more than 20 years,” he says, “and this is definitely the most damaging situation I can remember.”
Meir Yitzhak Halevi, the city’s mayor for the past 17 years, echoes this sentiment when he says: “No doubt, this has been the most difficult time I’ve ever experienced in the job.”
Halevi estimates that unemployment in the city is now hovering at 60 percent, noting that since mid-March requests for assistance from the local welfare agencies have risen by 50 percent. “These figures are crazy,” he says.
Eilat’s troubles didn’t start with the pandemic, though. Indeed, within less than a year, the city has suffered what Halevi describes as a “triple whammy.”
First came the closure of Sde Dov Airport in Tel Aviv last July, which effectively eliminated all flights between the center of the country and Eilat (flights are still available from Ben Gurion Airport, which is far less convenient). Eilatis have always felt cut off from the rest of the country (the city is a four-hour drive from Tel Aviv and the nearest big city, Be’er Sheva, is nearly three hours away), but losing quick access to the center of the country, says the mayor, has made them feel more isolated than ever.
Then, on March 13, a freak storm pummeled the city, causing damages estimated at tens of millions of shekels to its coral reefs and beachfront. Two days later, Israel went into lockdown and Eilat took another major pounding.
And yet in contrast to other places in Israel, where many local businesses never reopened after the lockdown was eased, not a single hotel or restaurant in Eilat has thus far announced plans to shutter. It is proof that many Eilatis see a silver lining in the travel reality created by COVID-19: Although overseas tourists may not be returning to the city in the foreseeable future with international flights virtually nonexistent, Israelis – for the very same reason – may have no choice but to make Eilat their next vacation destination.
That was blatantly clear at the end of May when hotels in the city began opening for the Jewish holiday of Shavuot and were fully booked immediately. For the first time in months, there were also major traffic jams in the city. Currently, about a dozen hotels are back in operation, with the rest set to open within the coming weeks.
A visit to Israel’s vacation capital this week revealed that the city is slowly coming back to life with many businesses open, though certainly not all. Two of Eilat’s main tourist attractions – the dolphin reef and underwater observatory – were still closed. The hotel where this reporter stayed was fully booked, with hardly an empty spot in the parking lot. Then again, since most of the hotels were still closed, the number of available rooms was limited. Even Eilat’s famous glass-bottom boats were taking passengers out for rides again, though far less frequently than usual.
Nitzan Peretz, a high-tech worker from Tel Aviv who visits the city often, was out on an evening stroll with his aunt – a local nurse – and his girlfriend, hoping to find an open restaurant. To him, it is clear that Eilat is still not back to itself. “I have many relatives who live here, so I’ve been coming pretty much every year since I was a little boy,” he says. “This city has taken a major hit, but after seeing what went on here on Shavuot, I’m a bit more optimistic now.”
What saddened him more than anything was seeing the Three Monkeys Pub, the city’s oldest bar, shuttered. “I’ve never seen that place closed before,” he says.
The fact that Eilat enjoys beach weather almost all year round is not its only draw for Israelis. Because purchases here are exempt from Israel’s 17 percent value-added tax, the city is widely regarded among Israelis as a shopping haven.
At midday Wednesday, the popular Mall Hayam shopping center seemed to be packed with shoppers – but apparently only to the eyes of an out-of-towner.
Asked whether she wasn’t encouraged by the large crowds, Yael Tal, who has been selling jewelry at the mall for the past decade, laughed in response. “This? A large crowd? You should see what goes on here usually at this time of year,” she said.
In a city so reliant on tourism, hotel occupancy rates hold the key to what can be expected in the coming months. According to Shay from the local hotel association, projections for the summer are “very high.”
But the situation, he cautions, is “very fragile.” Relative to many other Israeli cities, Eilat has experienced a relatively low incidence of coronavirus infection – a total of 22 cases, none of them serious. “If suddenly there’s an outbreak here, that could ruin everything,” Shay says.
A day after he delivered his warning, Eilat reported its first verified case of the coronavirus in more than three weeks.
Eilat welcomes about 2.5 million Israelis and another 250,000 overseas visitors every year, according to Shay. The foreigners tend to come between October and April, with about 50 direct flights a week from various European cities during this period. For Israelis, the high season tends to be April (whenever Passover starts) through December.
Eilat’s fortunes will depend, then, on whether the expected boom in local tourism can compensate for the almost certain disappearance of foreign tourism. As Shay notes, overseas tourists are unlikely to return “until a vaccination or cure is found for the coronavirus.”
Midweek in early June is not typically the high season for local tourism in Eilat, with the school year not yet over. So who were the vacationers sunning themselves on the beach in these post-lockdown days, as temperatures soared to nearly 38 degrees Celsius (100 degrees Fahrenheit)?
They were women like Vered Andre’ev and Esther Vorkin, both 26 years old and both students from Haifa. Andre’ev attends the University of Haifa, where she’s studying for her master’s degree in Arabic language and literature, while Vorkin is studying for her bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at the city’s Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. They arrived in Eilat at 5 A.M. on Wednesday, on an overnight bus from Haifa, and immediately hit the beach.
“I just needed to relax and breathe a bit,” says Andre’ev, admitting that had the choice been available, she would have preferred to spend her vacation week in Cyprus.
For Vorkin, it’s a long overdue break from her studies. “I love the Red Sea,” she says, “and the heat doesn’t bother me at all. But yes, if there were other options available, I would probably have chosen to spend this time in Italy.”
Elkana and Rivka Moses, both pensioners, are what might be called Eilat groupies. The couple, who immigrated to Israel from Mumbai two years ago and live in Yavne, central Israel, make the trip down here almost every two months.
“Whenever we have guests from abroad, this is where we bring them,” Elkana says. “But now more than ever, we feel it’s important to help the local economy, because there are no longer foreigners coming to Eilat.”
Asked if the heat bothers him, he responds: “I’m from India. This isn’t hot for me.”
The Moseses are in town for a brief two-day vacation with their daughter-in-law Susan and their granddaughter Michele. “We were in desperate need of a break after spending two-and-a-half months in lockdown,” says Susan, 47. “And for us, this is the most lovely place in Israel.”
For the past 23 years, Moria Kaplan, Morit Margalit and Nirit Gaon – all midwives from towns in central Israel – would meet every May in Eilat. They would spend part of their time together at the annual enrichment conference held by their professional association, and the rest of the time hanging out and having fun. “Without our husbands,” notes Kaplan, 63.
Because of the pandemic, their annual midwives gathering was postponed this year until September. “We decided we weren’t going to wait until September,” Margalit says. “The minute they opened Eilat, we packed our bags and came down.”
By late morning, Shmuel Didi and Vanessa Bsiri, both deeply tanned, have had their fill of the beach and are heading back to their apartment for lunch. The couple, both Parisiens, got stuck in Israel when the pandemic broke out and have spent most of the past two-and-a-half months in Eilat, where, conveniently, they happen to own an apartment. “We landed in Tel Aviv on March 4, three days later we came down to Eilat and basically, we’ve been here ever since,” says Didi, who works in real estate back in France.
Asked when they plan to return to Paris, he says: “Only when things are back to normal there. Until then, we’re staying put.”
Whale – or rather, Hamburger at the Whale – is not the only restaurant in town trying to adapt itself to the new coronavirus-induced reality, in which customers will most likely be locals and pockets won’t be very deep.
Barbis, for example, has been operating for 17 years as an American-style, full service diner. When Israel went into lockdown, it furloughed all 22 members of staff. But as soon as restaurants were allowed to open for takeout and delivery about 10 days later, it went back into business, albeit with a significantly reduced staff.
“We saw that we could make it work this way,” Marketing Director Adam Yospe says, “and we decided maybe it was time to take the business in a completely different direction.”
Ever since restaurants in Israel were allowed to welcome back diners last week, Barbis has transitioned into what Yospe describes as a “take-in” facility. Basically, that means it’s a self-service restaurant – which enables it to operate at much lower costs.
“Right now, we don’t know if there will be another coronavirus outbreak or not, so I think it would be irresponsible for us to hire everyone back if we’re going to have to send them home again,” Yospe explains. “By moving to this new system, we stay open but save ourselves that headache.”
Established in 1986, Pago Pago – a seafood restaurant located in the marina – is considered an Eilat institution. After shutting down entirely for two-and-a-half months, it reopened last week, but with a completely different menu. The hours have changed, too: For the first time in its relatively long history, the restaurant will be open for breakfast, in addition to lunch and dinner.
“We understood that if we wanted to stay in business, we needed to reinvent ourselves,” says owner Ronen Mor, “because what was will no longer be – at least not for the foreseeable future.”
Mor points to the marina. “It may seem that the city is back to normal, but here’s your proof that it isn’t,” he says. “Usually the marina would be packed at this time of day, and look at how empty it is. Barely a soul out there.”
As part of the new overhaul, Pago Pago has removed all the exorbitantly priced dishes from its menu. That would include the lobster platter that cost 400 shekels ($115). “Today, the most expensive item on the menu is 138 shekels,” Mor says.
It is not only the restaurants that are reinventing themselves. So is the city – at least, that’s the plan. Halevi, the mayor, says his big takeaway from the coronavirus crisis is that Eilat needs to diversify.
“Today, we’re 80 percent tourism, 20 percent everything else,” he says. “There needs to be a better balance. I’d like to get us into a situation of 50-50, or at least 60-40.”
He already has an idea of where he’d like to start. “My dream is to set up an industrial park in Eilat, dedicated to food products from the sea,” Halevi says. “We have a sea here, quite a few world-class research centers and the skills to make it happen.”