Eilat promotes 'country within a country' to U.S.

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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 places.

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.

Eilat, Israel's port on the Red Sea, is a bustling resort town. Above, the marina. 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 elsewhere.

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," Maor said.

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 abuts Eilat.

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 were confirmed.

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 Jewish arrivals.

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.

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