The Israeli resort town of Eilat hopes the opening of the $500 million Ramon International Airport, scheduled to become operational in October, will attract a million foreign visitors a year of the annual capacity of 2.5 million passengers it can handle.
By Reuters & Israel Hayom Staff
Once almost lost to international tourism, the Israeli resort of Eilat hopes a new airport will attract a million foreign visitors a year by 2025, with eastern Europeans especially offering growth for the winter holiday season.
International tourist arrivals in Israel hit a record 3.6 million last year, pumping $5.5 billion into the economy. But three-quarters of them opted for Jerusalem, leaving the Red Sea beaches of Eilat more for Israeli holidaymakers.
Foreign tourists are scarce in the winter when temperatures in Eilat are warm, hotels are half empty.
Travelers to Eilat flying into Israel’s main gateway, Ben-Gurion International Airport near Tel Aviv, need to take an extra domestic flight or make an arduous four-hour drive through the Negev Desert.
But the most glaring problem is the old airport in the city center, which can take only eight flights an hour and no wide-body aircraft. That capacity is already filled by the more than 1.4 million Israelis who fly to Eilat each year.
Direct international flights are now available thanks to government incentives, but only to a stop-gap civilian terminal at the Ovda military airfield, a 60-kilometer (37-mile) drive from Eilat. More than 175,000 foreign tourists flew into Ovda in the first five months of this year, double the entire figure for 2017.
But the $500 million Ramon International Airport will have an annual capacity of 2.5 million passengers, with room for expansion. Scheduled to open in October, it will be able to handle 20 takeoffs and landings an hour and accommodate larger aircraft such as Boeing 747s.
The airport is named for Israel’s first NASA astronaut, Ilan Ramon, who died in 2003 aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia, which disintegrated upon re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere due to a structural failure.
Ramon International, 18 kilometers (11 miles) from the city, will replace the old Eilat airport, while Ovda will revert to sole military use.
With Eilat bordering on Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, where Islamic State remains active, the airport will be protected by a 26-meter (84.5-foot) high fence equipped with sensors and detection technology to protect against missile and other attacks.
The tourist revival in Eilat began in 2015, when the government and the Eilat Hotels Association began offering airlines €60 ($70) per passenger they brought on direct flights from abroad to Ovda. Taxes and fees were also scrapped for three years to keep fares low.
Mostly low-cost carriers such as Ireland’s Ryanair fly in the winter season to Ovda, particularly from Eastern and Central Europe, where rising living standards now allow many to take a second holiday as well as the traditional summer break. Links with western Europe are also growing, with flights from Zurich and Madrid starting this winter.
Ryanair, Europe’s biggest low-cost carrier, will add flights from Prague this winter for a total of 15 routes to Eilat.
“We finished last year with 48 weekly flights to Eilat and I think that from the next winter that will start on September, we’ll probably see more than 50 maybe almost 60 flights per week which is a great change,” Tourism Minister Yariv Levin noted Monday.
“There is no question about it – once the new airport will be open, this will give another boost to this trend and it will enable not only low-cost companies but also regular airlines to offer direct flights” to Eilat.
Ramon International Airport Manager Hanan Moscovitz said, “The airport is needed for the city of Eilat and Israel, and is going to be the new gate for Israel. The new airport will be alternate to Ben-Gurion [airport], with a capacity of about 2 million passengers coming on domestic flights and international flights.”
Liat Agassi, marketing manager for Eilat’s Municipal Tourism Corporation, noted that “for the last three years, we have seen a 50% increase in tourism – that’s in itself is amazing data because you understand that people love Eilat. We never even dreamed it. It’s a blessing for us and we can expect it only to grow.”
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