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Is Sinai’s pain Eilat’s gain?

As European tourists cancel their Sharm el-Sheikh vacations following the suspected bombing of a Russian airliner, Israel’s southern resort town gets ready to welcome them

Simona Weinglass is an investigative reporter at The Times of Israel.

Eilat's Dolphin Reef (Dafna Tal/ www.goisrael.com)
Eilat's Dolphin Reef (Dafna Tal/ www.goisrael.com)

As European tour operators cancel trips to Egypt’s Red Sea resorts following the suspected bombing of a Russian airliner on October 31, the southern Israeli resort of Eilat is hoping to snag some of the aborted visits.

“We’re talking to airlines, specifically those that have stopped flying to Egypt,” says Shabtai Shay, general manager at the Eilat Hotel Association.

Shay says that hotel occupancy in Eilat is currently at 70 percent but that there has been a slowdown — he hopes a temporary one — in new reservations due to the security situation.

Disappointed would-be Sinai tourists could help make up for this shortfall, says Shay, but he is also realistic.

British tourists arrive at the airport in Egypt's Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on November 6, 2015. (Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP)
British tourists arrive at the airport in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh on November 6, 2015. (Mohamed el-Shahed/AFP)

“Europeans who would normally go to Sinai will go to Turkey, Jordan or the Canary Islands. We will be one of their options. But we have to see if we can be attractive enough.”

By attractive, Shay means cheap. A night in a 5-star hotel in Sharm el-Sheikh, in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, costs about $50. In Eilat, it runs about $200.

“Can we offer the same prices? No, we can’t. But we have to see how cheap can we make it.”

Nahum Kara, head of marketing for the Isrotel hotel chain, says he has been in touch with wholesalers about offering Eilat as an alternative to Sharm el-Sheikh. He had even suggested bringing some of the thousands of Russian tourists stranded in Sinai to Eilat by bus and allowing them to fly home from Israel.

“We offered the wholesalers a very attractive price and are waiting to hear their response.”

Pini Shani, director of the overseas department at Israel’s Tourism Ministry, says that if security in Sinai continues to be precarious, Eilat would likely see a small boost in tourists.

“There’s potential there, but not huge numbers.”

Shani said that even before the suspected plane bombing in Sinai, about 20 flights from Europe were scheduled to arrive in Eilat each week, including discount carriers Ryanair and Pegasus.

Illustrative photo of an Eilat hotel, June 1, 2014. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)
Illustrative photo of an Eilat hotel, June 1, 2014. (photo credit: Yossi Zeliger/Flash 90)

This is an improvement over previous years, when Eilat was not on the radar of many travel wholesalers. Until recently, the bulk of winter travel to Eilat came from Russia. This year, the tourists booked to arrive hail from Poland, Hungary and France as well as Russia.

In terms of attracting would-be Sinai travelers, “we’ve been talking to travel wholesalers. They are on the fence to see what happens in Sinai. The assumption is that things will go back to normal.”

Why is Sinai so dangerous?

Dr. Ely Karmon, a senior research scholar at The International Institute for Counter-Terrorism (ICT) in Herzliya, explains that the situation is not new, that terrorist attacks have occurred with regularity since the 2004 Taba bombings that killed 34 people including 13 Israelis and the 2005 Sharm el-Sheikh attacks which killed 83 Egyptians and tourists.

Nearly every year, Israel’s Counter-terrorism Bureau issues a travel warning against visiting Sinai. As a result, very few Jewish Israelis go there, although it remains a popular destination for Israeli Arabs.

Karmon explains that radicalized insurgents have been fighting the Egyptian government, killing soldiers, bombing Egypt’s oil pipeline and smuggling weapons and other items into Gaza as well as launching rockets at Eilat. In July of this year, Islamic State-affiliated gunmen killed over 70 Egyptian soldiers and police.

Many of the jihadists in Sinai are local Bedouins who have become radicalized, along with foreign fighters, ex-Egyptian prisoners and Palestinians from Gaza. Many suffer from unemployment as well as a blow to their smuggling livelihood as Egypt has destroyed smuggling tunnels to Gaza.

Debris of the A321 Russian airliner lie on the ground a day after the plane crashed in Wadi al-Zolomat, a mountainous area in Egypt's Sinai Peninsula, on November 1, 2015 (Khaled Desouki/AFP)
Debris of the A321 Russian airliner lie on the ground a day after the plane crashed in Wadi al-Zolomat, a mountainous area in Egypt’s Sinai Peninsula, on November 1, 2015 (Khaled Desouki/AFP)

Three million Russians visited Egypt last year. The suspected bombing of the Russian airliner will deliver a blow to Egypt’s economy, which has been in retreat since the ouster of President Hosni Mubarak in 2011, says Karmon. But Egypt’s insurgents don’t care, as the hotel business is on the Sinai’s southern coast and benefits wealthy hotel owners in Cairo, while they are located in the Sinai’s north.

Karmon says he expects an Egyptian crackdown now on the jihadists, “and the Russians want to go in now and help them.”

In the meantime, Eilat may be a more attractive option for those who can afford it.

“In Sharm,” says Shabtai Shay, “you’ve got the beach and sea. We can offer that and also Petra, the Dead Sea and day trips to Jerusalem and Masada. I think we’re attractive to tourists who want more than just an even suntan.”

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