Travel Weekly editor-at-large Nadine Godwin toured Israel in
early September for a first-hand look at a nation whose tourism
industry has suffered for about a year as a result of an extended
siege of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Her first report appeared
last month, and a follow-up report follows:
EILAT, Israel -- When I arrived in this resort city at the
southern end of Israel, I was greeted by one of my hosts at the Dan
Hotel as follows:
"Welcome to the end of the world. This really is like another
country in a country."
Indeed, after a day driving across a desert, stopping to look at
attractions such as ruins left by the Nabateans at Avdat, it did
seem I had left the familiar world behind by the time we pulled
into this city of 50,000 residents and 10,000 hotel rooms. Here,
60% of the income is derived from tourism.
Eilat reminded me a bit of Las Vegas, with modern, exotic -- and
gigantic -- hotels lining a single roadway.
Although I would be hard-pressed to guess which desert
destination is hotter, there are key differences between the two
Eilat is Vegas with a lot more water. Most rooms in my hotel
overlooked the Red Sea, plus three other countries -- Egypt, Jordan
and Saudi Arabia.
Also, gambling is illegal in the hotels, so gaming fans use any
of a handful of boats that sail into the middle of the Red Sea for
an afternoon or evening of play.
Even if Israel's tourism was not way down -- by at least 50% --
because of the intifada, I would not have expected to see many
Americans, if any, here.
While plenty of Europeans come by charter to this beach
playground for a full week at a time, Americans are more likely to
drop in briefly as part of a longer program of sightseeing
Rina Maor, director, Eilat & Negev Region, for the Israel
Ministry of Tourism, said in a normal year, about 30,000 Americans
come to Israel's far south out of 1.5 million total to Eilat, or a
very modest 2%.
In other words, "not enough" Americans come to Eilat, she said,
where numerous hotels meet American standards.
"This is a European-modern city in a European-modern country,"
Eilat would be a long distance to travel only for its beaches,
but there are other options, including day trips to Petra in
Jordan, traveling via Aqaba, the Jordanian city that virtually
Maor said Eilat promotes itself in the U.S. by targeting two
types of markets.
One aims at special interests. An example is birdwatchers: Eilat
is on the flight path of many migrating birds, so the birdwatchers'
seasons are September/October and February/March.
In addition, Maor said, "we aim at desert lovers, [and] those
interested in Jordan and Egypt."
Eilat also is a place for divers and for nature lovers, she
said. Clients can go horseback and camel riding as well.
My itinerary included a two-hour trip to the Eilat Mountains
Reserve, the world's second-driest desert and home to a type of
gazelle that live their whole lives without drinking water.
Eilat also is targeting travelers through religion.
Maor said, "We are pushing for the Jewish traveler and for the
Israeli in the U.S. to come here now, when we need them."
Another viable target group is Baptists. The Eilat region is of
interest to those who want to enter Israel from the south,
following in Moses' footsteps.
Maor said business is not off so badly in Eilat as in other
parts of Israel, but it is not clear what the picture will be like
after the October holidays.
During the winter in previous years, she said, Eilat saw 40 to
45 weekly charters out of Europe. For the coming season, only 10
Tsion Ben-David, director of North American operations for the
Israel Ministry of Tourism, said the falloff in business has been
greater from Europe than from the U.S.
In a normal year, he said, 48% of American visitors are
repeaters; the percent is higher right now.
He echoed Maor's emphasis on the Jewish and Christian markets,
adding that arrivals of Christians -- mostly Protestant -- outpace
Ben-David said only 17% to 20% of American Jews have ever
visited Israel. But for promotional purposes, the major problem is
attracting nonaffiliated Jews, or even identifying them.