Abandoned Red Sea Tourism Hub Pushes Desperate Coronavirus Lockdown Exit Strategy

Israeli resort city of Eilat presents plan to revive tourism, but mayor fears the worst, with 800 businesses already shut

Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri
A view of the beach in Eilat, 2019.
A view of the beach in Eilat, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi
Almog Ben Zikri
Almog Ben Zikri

Eilat has proposed a plan to reopen tourism in the city, in a bid to rescue the many struggling businesses in the Red Sea resort city, amid a second coronavirus lockdown imposed by the Israeli government.

Under the plan, domestic tourists would have to present results of a coronavirus test taken within two days of their arrival. Foreign tourists would have to undergo another test upon landing in the city.

HAARETZ PODCAST: A very close call for Netanyahu and Mossad chief at the White HouseCredit: Haaretz

The initiative requires government approval, which hasn't been secured so far. But there are few alternatives left for the city, which lives mostly on tourism. Eilat’s mayor, Yitzhak Halevy said the unemployment situation in the city “is desperate and many businesses have no further room to breathe.”

The plan drawn up by the city council in consultation with health officials calls for listing the city as a “green island” that can resume accepting tourists. Israelis arriving without proof of a negative coronavirus test could be re-tested, while the plan also allows a doctor’s note of good health instead of a test result. Foreign tourists who have not been tested will not be able to enter the country. Isolation facilities will be designated for anyone who tests positive while in the city.

The plan also calls for reopening the nearby airport to low-cost flights to allow foreign tourists to arrive directly there.

The Crowne Plaza hotel, Eilat, Israel, 2019.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

Eilat suffered a great economic blow under the first lockdown, with unemployment hitting 75 percent, according to Halevy. Over summer, Israeli tourists unable to travel abroad flooded the city and the hotels had fuller occupancy than ever. But the ability to enforce social distancing rules is limited, particularly along Eilat’s beach promenade, the beaches in general, even in hotels. Unemployment remained at 30 percent even then, because many businesses anticipated the restrictions would resume.

“We’ve proposed four plans to reopen the city, and this time we have a plan Health Ministry professionals feel is good,” Halevy told Haaretz. “But in the end it’s the politicians who have to make a decision, and in my opinion, they’re the ones who are panicking.” He added that he has submitted the plan to most members of the coronavirus cabinet committee and has discussed it with Health Minister Yuli Edelstein and his deputy Yoav Kish.

“I want to stabilize the city’s economy,” Haley said. “Businesses here have no room to breathe, and I’m more worried than I have ever been. There are close to 800 businesses that have shut and never reopened. In a city with such a mobile demographic as Eilat it could also open the door to people leaving. People don’t understand this is a different sort of issue for us, and there’s nobody to talk to about it. They’re all in a panic, I have a feeling that they all worries about facing a commission of inquiry and they don’t want to make any decisions.”

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