Eilat, Dead Sea to become ‘tourist islands’ after Knesset green lights plan

Legislation allowing hotels to open passes despite warning from health officials that rapid testing necessary for keeping areas virus-free won’t be ready for several more days

Empty sun loungers on a beach near the Dead Sea hotel complex, on July 10, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)
Empty sun loungers on a beach near the Dead Sea hotel complex, on July 10, 2019. (Gershon Elinson/Flash90)

Knesset members gave the final go-ahead to a plan Wednesday that will allow hotels and other venues to reopen in Eilat and near the Dead Sea, intended to transform them into coronavirus-free “tourism islands.”

Twenty-six lawmakers backed the law with none opposing. While the legislation will allow Eilat and Dead Sea resorts to partially reopen, other tourist sites across the country will remain closed for the time being as part of a compromise deal reached earlier in the day.

The plenum vote was held hours after the Constitution Law and Justice Committee gave its own final approval of the legislation.

During that committee meeting, lawmakers agreed to forgo a clause in the legislation that would have allowed the Knesset to add additional sites to the list of “tourist islands” so long as they adhere to health guidelines. Lawmakers’ insistence on including this clause led Health Minister Yuli Edelstein to pull the legislation mid-vote on Monday. Edelstein, along with other health officials, has been urging a slow, cautious release from the national lockdown.

Constitution Law and Justice Committee chairman Yaakov Asher had been holding his ground in support of the clause, asserting that other tourist sites should be allowed to reopen, but ultimately acquiesced following a meeting with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu earlier Wednesday.

Edelstein praised the law’s passing in a Wednesday night statement, saying it would help “save” Eilat.

“I am glad that all attempts to add additional clauses to this law have failed,” he said in a shot at lawmakers like Asher who had pushed for the legislation to be expanded.

Israel’s tourism industry has been brought to its knees by the coronavirus, though it enjoyed a respite in the spring and summer as internal tourists flooded Israeli hotels instead of traveling abroad. However, hotels were shut back down as part of a nationwide lockdown imposed in mid-September, which remains partially in place.

The new law will require tourists to present a negative COVID-19 test result from no more than 72 hours prior to their entry into Eilat or the Dead Sea resort of Ein Bokek. The legislation will allow hotels and adjacent small businesses to reopen so long as they adhere to other health guidelines.

People enjoy the beach in the resort city of Eilat, on November 6, 2020. (Yossi Aloni/Flash90)

Netanyahu earlier lauded the compromise, saying in a statement that he thought the legislation provided an “excellent solution… that will not only be welcomed by the residents of Eilat and the Dead Sea area but by all the citizens of Israel.”

As the legislation was being marked up in committee though, Health Ministry official Udi Kleiner revealed that his office would not be able to have a testing apparatus ready for the hotels to employ for several more days.

A compromise was subsequently reached that will allow tourists to be tested once a week upon entry into the tourist islands as opposed to once every three days. The compromise was evidently aimed at providing the Health Ministry with more time to prepare its testing apparatus necessary for the law to be put in place.

Both Eilat and the Dead Sea, which are heavily dependent on tourism, have seen unemployment skyrocket with hotels shut as part of a nationwide lockdown. Unemployment in Eilat remains over 40 percent, well above the national average, according to Walla news.

In addition to hotels, the law will allow restaurants and tourist attractions to reopen in those locations after months of closure during the country’s second lockdown.

There is only one main highway leading into the southern port city of Eilat, which is otherwise surrounded by desert, and the barren Dead Sea hotel area at Ein Bokek has no local residential population. Most workers come from Arad, the nearest city.

A multi-stage plan for lifting the lockdown is scheduled to take around four months, and some health officials have warned some restrictions already lifted may be reimposed unless infection numbers drop further.

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