As Eilat reopens, businesses hope tourists will come… after Shavuot too

As Eilat reopens, businesses hope tourists will come… after Shavuot too

Virus dealt big blow to Red Sea resort, which depends on tourism for 45% of locals’ income; 1/4 of hotels reopen, with lower prices, but some fear fresh collapse after festival

Aerial view of the southern Israeli city of Eilat, October 21, 2015. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)
Illustrative: Aerial view of the southern Israeli city of Eilat, October 21, 2015. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

The southern resort city of Eilat reopened Wednesday to tourists, with some businesses optimistic about the coming summer but others fearing that concerns over a second coronavirus infection wave, coupled with the fact that only Israelis can come, will lead to financial collapse.

As restaurants and cafes were allowed to resume operations throughout the country Wednesday, and as some hotels reopened — all under strict hygiene and social distancing rules — so have many tourism businesses in Eilat, where some 741,000 people visited last year.

The city, located on the shore of the Red Sea, has suffered a devastating financial blow due to the lockdown forced by the COVID-19 pandemic, with some 45 percent of residents’ income depending on the bustling tourism industry.

Many businesses were struggling to reopen after being shut down for 2-3 months, having suffered losses and with reopening requiring significant efforts to meet the safety guidelines, which include temperature checks, barriers between cashiers and customers and strict hygiene practices.

Only 12 out of Eilat’s 50 hotels reopened Wednesday, according to Channel 13. Occupancy during the Shavuot festival, which begins Thursday night, will be over 90 percent, the report said.

But locals are worried that after this weekend, that will change.

“There won’t be tourists, hotels will empty, there’s no government support and the main fear of business owners is that everything is returning to normal, including reinstating furloughed workers, and after three days everything will collapse again because there will be no work,” Ronen Mor, chairman of Eilat’s association of restaurants and bars, told the Ynet news site.

Wednesday marked the first day since mid-March that restaurants and cafes in Israel were allowed to open after the coronavirus lockdown. Restaurants and bars had been among the last places okayed to be reopened, with owners pushing to be able to return to work. Hotels have gradually started to resume operations as well.

The country has gradually eased restriction over the past month as the number of new daily infections has dropped to around two dozen a day. However, officials have expressed fears of a second wave, and there have been reports of localized outbreaks centered around reopened schools.

At the height of the virus crisis, almost all businesses and public places were shut and most people were banned from going more than 100 meters from their homes.

The empty swimming pools at the closed Dan Eilat hotel in the Red Sea resort city of Eilat on April 17, 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. (Menahem Kahana/AFP)

Channel 13 said most hotels in Eilat had lowered their prices for the summer — in some cases significantly — compared to pre-COVID-19 levels, hoping to attract Israelis who want a vacation but still cannot safely fly abroad.

But special new measures must be introduced to reopen.

At the Royal Garden Hotel, for instance, all the food in the dining room will be served in packages, and buffets will only feature individually packaged helpings.

The hotel has stocked up on hand sanitizer, face masks and electronic thermometers, has placed a glass barrier at reception, and will enforce the two-meter distance rule. Cleaning the rooms is also now a much more involved task, with each room taking up to 20 additional minutes.

“It’s a great feeling to return to normal, the hotel is getting festive and for us it’s a double celebration ahead of Shavuot,” said the hotel’s manager, Shani Azulay.

“The employees are as excited as I am,” Azulay said. “The preparations weren’t easy and required new procedures to meet all the standards and satisfy our guests.”

Maayan, the wife of one of the hotel’s employees, said she believed Eilat “will fill up with Israelis, because Israelis love Eilat. Let’s hope for the best. We must revive this city quickly.”

View of the hotels in the southern Israeli city of Eilat. (Nati Shohat/Flash90)

But Mor, the restaurant association chairman, wasn’t optimistic.

“Some of the restaurants that aren’t opening are collapsing financially,” he said. “Many have not gotten stipends, loans or any government support. Some are not reopening because they are not ready with the logistics. Most hotels are still closed, and most attractions haven’t opened.

“There is going to be a second wave of financial collapses. We were forced to close for three months, nobody pays attention to us and our trust in the government has collapsed.”

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