Eilat’s tourism industry is hoping to lure the Russians no longer able to reach Egypt’s Sharm el-Sheikh resort city by air after a bomb brought down a jetliner leaving the resort town and Moscow suspended indefinitely all flights to and from Russia.
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The initial news for Eilat, which has been suffering a drop in foreign tourism, is promising. Next week 11 flights by the Turkish airline Pegasus and tour packager Anex Tourism Group originally scheduled to fly to Sharm al-Sheikh will land in Eilat instead.
But tourism officials warn that the Russians may not be coming in big numbers, and even if they do they might choose not to stay.
Russians seeking a break from their country’s long and freezing winters had been the biggest group of tourists in Sharm el-Sheikh. The Russian Federal Tourism Agency, Rosturism, estimated that Egypt accounted for some 30% of all outgoing tourism, or three million people, making it the most popular foreign destination for Russian tourists.
But the downing of the Russian Metrojet airliner over Egypt’s Sinai desert October 31 changed all that. After resisting the idea, Russian authorities now concede that it was a bomb that brought down the plane.
But the competition to lure those Russian tourists is fierce. Representatives from Jordan, Turkey and Greece, as well as Israel, have been meeting with Russian tour packagers. As part of its campaign, Israel’s Tourism Ministry dusted off an old subsidiary program that awarded airlines 45 euros ($48.30) per traveler arriving in Eilat. Pegasus and Anex took it.
Meanwhile, the Eilat Hotels Association has pitched in another 15 euros per tourist as well, so between the two grants, landing in Eilat looks financial attractive.
Pegasus will be operating 150 flights from now to the end of April from seven Russian cities. Anex has slated up to 70 flights from four cities.
The next problem for the industry is convincing the Russians to remain in Eilat after they land. Eilat hotel prices are steep compared to Egypt’s and many Russians may risk crossing the border into Sinai to save on room rates, industry officials fear.
ATOR, the association of Russian tour operators, estimates that before the terror attack some 70,000 vacations in Egypt had already been sold for the period before New Year at an average price of $800 a person.
Russian tour packagers may opt to subsidize hotel stays in Eilat, and the hotels themselves may reduce room rates, but officials said it would be hard for Israeli hotels to match Egyptian rates, especially now that hotels in Sharm el-Sheikh are desperate to fill rooms.
The Eilat tourism industry could badly use the Russians. In its peak year, 2013, Russians accounted for nearly 60% of the city’s foreign tourists. Eilat is a “sun and fun” destination for Russian tourists who fly there directly without touring the rest of Israel.
But Russia’s sputtering economy and the slide of the ruble caused Russians to cancel their vacations or choose cheaper destinations. Room nights by foreign tourists in the city dropped 17% to 807,500 in 2014, almost three times the decline nationwide, according to figures from Tourism Ministry Director General Amir Levy.
In the 2013-14 winter season, some 40,000 Russian and European tourists arrived on 15 to 20 weekly flights, but that number plunged to just 12,000 last winter with the number of flights shrinking to three to four a week, half of them from Russia.
Overall, Russian tourism to Israel is down 28% this year to 225,000 arrivals, according to the Central Bureau of Statistics. The Russian airline Aeroflot is increasing the number of its weekly flights from Moscow and St. Petersburg to Tel Aviv to 37, but the increase is mainly making up the loss of 21 weekly flights by another Russian carrier, Transaero, which was grounded last month due to financial difficulties.