Israel on-site: Eilat on 'the end of the world'

Travel Weekly editor at large Nadine Godwin is touring Israel for a first-hand look at a nation whose tourism industry has suffered for nearly a year as a result of an extended siege of Palestinian-Israeli violence. Her second report follows:

EILAT, Israel -- I arrived in this resort city at the southern end of Israel and 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 the ruins left by the Nabateans at Avdat, it did seem I had left the familiar world behind by the time we pulled into this small town which is devoted to two things: shipping and tourism.

A highway sign in Aqaba, Jordan, points to the Israeli city of Eilat. 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 differences.

Eilat is Vegas with a lot more water -- most rooms in my hotel overlook 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 were not way down (by about 50%) because of Palestinian-Israeli violence, I would not have expected to see many Americans, if any, today.

While Europeans come by charter to this beach playground for a full week at a time, Americans are more likely to drop in for a few days as part of a longer program of sightseeing elsewhere.

It would be a long way to travel for beaches only, but there are other options, including day trips to Petra in Jordan, traveling via Aqaba, the Jordanian city that virtually abuts Eilat.

My guide said that, despite any inclination Jordanians might have to side with the Palestinians in their quarrel with Israel, such trips have not been interrupted.

In addition, she said, she can just as readily hand a tourist over to Jordanian guides on the Allenby Bridge near Jerusalem in these days as she could in the past; she can pick up clients traveling in the opposite direction, as well.

Not all options have survived as readily, though, during the current Mideast crisis. My itinerary will take me from Eilat back north and, after visiting tourist attractions along the way, I will wind up in Jerusalem.

Although Bethlehem is a short distance, and an obvious side trip, from the Israeli capital, it is not on my itinerary and is not on many another to urist's itinerary these days because it is under Palestinian Authority control.

If my trip had been to the north, I could have visited Nazareth, but I would not have gone to Jericho either because it, too, is under Palestinian control. Tourists can visit these points but it is harder these days to do so.

My guide said "it is forbidden" for her to take visitors to those destinations because the Israeli government forbids Israelis to enter territories controled by the Palestinian Authority.

The issue, however, is not the safety of the foreign visitors. Therefore, at the crossing point between Israeli-controlled territory and that controled by Palestinians, an Israeli tour operator might arrange for a Palestinian bus and guide to pick up groups that want to visit Bethlehem.

Or, my guide said tourists could go to the Arab Quarter of Jerusalem and hire a Palestinian driver to take them to Bethlehem, but she would not recommend that.

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