Knesset gives initial approval to declaring Eilat, Dead Sea ‘tourist islands’

Bill passes 1st reading; move will enable both locations, which see 30% of country’s tourism, restart operations despite outbreak; visitors will need to have negative virus test

Stuart Winer is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel.

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

The Knesset on Monday night passed in its first reading a bill that will enable defining the resort city of Eilat and the Dead Sea hotels complex as special virus-free areas, exempting them from some restrictions that have shuttered hotels and guesthouses across the country due to the ongoing coronavirus outbreak.

Earlier in the day the Ministerial Committee for Legislation approved the bill after the broader cabinet gave its backing to it on Sunday. The bill must pass second and third readings before being signed into law.

Under the terms of the bill the two areas will be declared “special tourist areas,” the Tourism Ministry said in a statement. It called the zones “green tourist islands,” a reference to a government color-coded system used to grade virus infection areas, with red being most-infected and green having the lowest infection rates.

“The implementation of the decision is expected to reduce unemployment in Eilat and the Dead Sea and is part of a plan to rehabilitate the tourism industry, which has been severely damaged during the coronavirus crisis,” the ministry said.

Entry into the special areas will be conditioned on visitors showing that they have tested negative for the coronavirus in the previous 48 hours.

Although the exemptions in the bill only apply to hotels, the ministry said that it aims for further legislation to allow more business in those areas to open for the benefit of hotel guests.

Orit Farkash-Hacohen. (Yanai Yechiel)

“The green tourism islands outline approved by the government is the result of a very complex dialogue with the Health Ministry and a great effort to bring this before the government to get it moving,” Tourism Minister Orit Farkash-Hacohen said in the statement.

Farkash-Hacohen said the plan described in the bill gives “an immediate response” to areas that account for some 30 percent of the country’s tourism industry.

After the committee vote, Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn tweeted that the bill will “supply oxygen to the city of Eilat and the Dead Sea area.”

The legislation requires “the development of a complex mechanism that can be put into place,” Farkash-Hacohen said and added that her ministry was working with the health and public security ministries, local authorities and virus testing entities to complete the process.

Hotels along the beach in the resort city of Eilat, October 21, 2015. (Moshe Shai/FLASH90)

The Tourism Ministry explained that Eilat and the Dead Sea area rely almost exclusively on tourism and the hotel business and that the rationale behind the bill is based on the special characteristics of both locations.

There is only one highway leading into the southern port city of Eilat, which is otherwise surrounded by desert, and the barren Dead Sea hotel area has no local residential population.

“The uniqueness of the Dead Sea allows for the existence of a ‘sterile area’ where vacationers who are negative for COVID-19 can gather, thus minimizing the risk of the virus spreading,” the ministry said. “The Dead Sea hotels complex does not have a local population that can come into contact with hotel guests.”

“The geographical characteristics of the city of Eilat and its relative isolation from nearby towns also give it the status of a ‘tourist island’ that allows people to monitor the entry into the city,” it added.

Farkash-Hacohen urged the government not to stop after awarding the special status to Eilat and the Dead Sea hotels, and to work quickly to open the entire tourism industry.

“There is no doubt in my eyes that this process is not a replacement for the need to open and rehabilitate the entire tourism industry and the immediate opening of rural tourism in Israel,” she said in the statement.

Justice Minister Avi Nissenkorn seen at the Knesset, October 21, 2020. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israel’s tourism industry has been brought to its knees, with hotels and guesthouses closed, as the government introduced restrictions aimed at prevent the virus spread.

From March there were limitations placed on public gatherings and then a ban on entry into the country for nonresidents. A national lockdown was ordered and by April unemployment in Eilat had reached 70%.

The restrictions were gradually lifted and some hotels and guesthouses reopened, but after a second wave of infection swept the country another lockdown was imposed in September that has since only been slightly eased, with the tourism industry still remaining at an almost complete freeze.

A multistage plan for lifting the lockdown is scheduled to take around four months.

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