“Israelis are returning to Sinai,” the newspaper headlines screamed during the Passover holiday this year, referring to the intrepid tourists who, despite warnings about the security risks, are vacationing in territory once occupied by Israel.
But what the media have missed is the number of Israelis opting to vacation in another neighboring Arab country. The Jordanian beach resort of Aqaba, which is just over the border from Eilat, is attracting more and more Israel holiday makers.
Keren Levy is one those Israelis. She has been to Aqaba twice with her husband, but this Passover holiday they brought along their four children – the youngest of whom is just 18 months old – to the city’s Movenpick Hotel.
“There’s a children club with activities going on all day, a kiddie pool next to a small playground, three other pools – all of it next to a quiet and fantastic beach,” she said. “It was a short but perfect vacation and we’re sure we will go back.”
Jordan has been at peace with Israel since the 1994 peace accord, and Israeli tourists have been visiting the ancient desert city of Petra. Beyond that, however, few Israelis visit Jordan and security concerns remain paramount. But Levy said she wasn’t concerned at all.
“The whole time we were there, we were treated with courtesy and cordiality,” she said. “We weren’t afraid to speak Hebrew or to say that we are from Israel – and whenever the question arose, they always spoke to us in Hebrew and with a smile. We walked around in complete confidence.”
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Aqaba’s attractiveness is not just its beaches and hotels but its low cost, compared to a vacation overseas or even in Eilat. Figures from the Israel Airports Authority, which tracks everyone arriving or departing Israel, show that the number of Israelis entering Jordan through the Yitzhak Rabin crossing between Aqaba and Eilat this year during the week of Passover rose 22% from a year ago to 5,806.
Israelis were visiting Jordan in even greater numbers in 2013 and 2014, but the level fell in the three years that followed. In 2018, however, there was a sudden surge, with 53,300 Israelis crossing the border, up 28% from the year before.
Unlike Egypt, Jordan doesn’t let Israelis into the country freely. Visitors to Aqaba have to show that they have a hotel reservation. Israelis who want to travel to Petra or Wadi Rum need to reserve a local guide before they come to Jordan.
Tomer Shaulov, who specializes in excursions to Jordan for the Israeli company Desert Eco Tours, warns visitors that if they fail to make their plans in advance, they risk being turned away at the border. Once refused, a visitor can’t return to the border the same day with a reservation in hand. And they are out whatever tax they paid on the Israeli side as well as the payment for their first hotel night. They also need a Jordanian agent to arrange an on-the-spot visa for them.
Shai Cohen, a student from Jerusalem, has been to Jordan twice, most recently last year during the Muslim month of Ramadan. Even if you do plan in advance with a Jordanian agent, you could end being frustrated at the border, he warned.
“It depends on how the Jordanian official wakes up that day. It depends on his mood. I’ve heard of cases in which Jordanian agents were there waiting for their Israeli clients on the other side and the Israelis still weren’t allowed to enter,” Cohen said.
Yaron Levy did everything by the book when he went with his daughter Doron on a four-day trip to Jordan a month ago, hiring a Jordanian agent to do all the planning and preparations. They spent their first two nights at the Hilton Hotel in Aqaba at a cost of 600 dinars ($226) for a double room, including breakfast, on a reservation that was cancellable up to the last minute without charge.
“We walked around the city a bit, ate at a local restaurant and felt safe,” he said. “The people we met were very friendly, as if they had received instructions to be nice to Israelis – even the drivers. I had been to Jordan twice before and felt the same thing.”
The highlight of the trip was a jeep trip and overnight stay at Wadi Rum. “We stayed at the Hasan Zawaideh Camp. The tents have all the amenities you could want, including air conditioning,” Levy noted, adding that the cost per night was just a few dinars. “The sky is clear and you can see the stars, the sky and the wonders of the desert.”
The Jordanian authorities are interested in promoting tourism that includes hotel stays and are less enthusiastic about day trippers, who use facilities but don’t contribute as much to the local economy. For the same reason, officials also look askance at backpackers travelling alone who don’t hire local guides.
At Petra the fee to enter the site for someone who is staying in a Jordanian hotel is 50 dinars for the first day and 5 for each additional day. A day tripper to the site has to pay 90 dinars.
“Jordan is an inexpensive country if you stay at an Aqaba hotel. When you travel around the country, as we did, prices aren’t that low. In the end, a three-and-a-half day vacation cost us 4,000 shekels [$1,120],” Yaron Levy said.
Shaulov agrees and said vacationing in Sinai costs less, but Aqaba is cheaper than staying in Eilat. “Most of the travelers go to Aqaba because of the cost of hotels in Eilat. That’s what happened during Passover this year,” he said.
That is also why Cohen, the student, chose Jordan for a holiday last year. “We wanted to go down to Eilat, but we found that the prices there were high – 1,500 shekels a night for a room for three people,” he recalled. “When you have other expenses on food outside the hotel, the bill goes up to a few thousand shekels. That’s not within a student’s budget.”
Cohen and his friends chose a Dead Sea hotel on the Jordanian side and entered the country at the Jordan River crossing further north. The Hilton Dead Sea cost them $150 a night for all three of them, including breakfast. They were even upgraded to a suite at no charge.
“On the Jordanian side of the Dead Sea, there’s nothing to do but hang out at the hotel,” Cohen remarked. “But the hotel management was aware of that, so they hosted roof parties at night. We didn’t feel like we were in an Arab country. The alcohol flowed freely, and it was no different from any hotel in a Western country.”