May 4, 2006
There’s a Lot About Eilat That’s Hot
The shores of Eilat, Israel's southernmost city, are densely populated with sun-kissed foreigners from around the world. Here, on the crimson-colored shoreline hugging the Red Sea, everything appears uncomplicated and picturesque -- exactly the way a resort town should.
But early on in the second intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2005, the scene became too tranquil. In a region where nearly half the tourists came from abroad, particularly from Europe, traffic from foreigners dropped to near zero.
"Europeans were very important to Eilat, especially Northern Europeans. They had regular charter flights to Eilat, but this all stopped after the start of the intifada in September 2000," said Ari Morris, Israel's director of marketing for North America. "In the year 2001, it came to a halt."
It was not only security-related fears, he said, but also a tendency to blame Israel for the violence.
In response, officials and business leaders mounted a massive push to make Eilat even more of a prime vacation destination for Israelis themselves. And last year, Israelis singled out Eilat as their favorite vacation city in a survey conducted by the Tourism Ministry.
But what finally spurred a turnaround was the discovery -- or rediscovery -- of Eilat by non-Israeli Jews. While Eilat's livelihood was under attack, the Jews of Europe were themselves feeling embattled. Anti-Semitism was prompting many European Jews to abandon traditional holidays in North Africa, for example, in search of safer alternatives.
"Things changed for us in France," said 60-year-old Yves Boutboul, a Tunisian-born Jew who lives in Paris. "You cannot go out of your home with a kippah anymore and feel secure."
Boutboul and his family now spend half the year in France and half in Israel. He even bought an apartment in Ranana, a city situated just outside Tel Aviv. "We started coming here more often during the intifada because we felt it was very important to help the Israeli people," he said while sitting down to a family dinner on the veranda of the Herods Palace Hotel. "For us, Eilat is really special."
Morris, the tourism official, said the trend was unmistakable. "Tourism from France rose nearly 300 percent," he said. "French Jews were coming here because of the anti-Semitism and also as a sign of solidarity. Without them, it would have been a tremendous crunch."
At times, it seems the official language of Eilat, a city of 55,000, is in fact French. Ask any one of the French Jews lollygagging on the city's main drag how they feel about Eilat and Israel, and you're likely to get a quick effusive response.
"This city has gone through some fabulous changes over the years," said Monique Ansellem, who first visited Eilat in 1967. "It's getting worse in France. More and more of my family are actually moving here. I hope that when I retire in two years, I can make this place my permanent home."
Eilat's reputation as a haven from terrorism and its spate of music festivals, most notably the Red Sea Jazz Festival, also draw visitors. In recent years, the city has added a film festival, classical music festival and an underwater photography festival.
"Most resort towns are not working throughout the entire year, but here in Eilat we are. So we need to do as much as we can to keep upgrading the city," said Yossi Ani, general manager of the Red Sea Resort Tourism Administration. "The festivals are really a demand that we created. We saw the popularity -- the people who wanted it."
The newest offering, a three-day chamber music festival, Classic Winter in Eilat, debuted in February.
Eilat is also known for what may be the world's northernmost coral reef, which lies just offshore, and continues to be a popular attraction for divers.
One idea currently on the table is to make Eilat a gambling center in Israel. Currently, Israelis must leave Israel proper to gamble legally.
Tourist numbers to Eilat have increased 24 percent each of the past three years, officials said. Direct international flights have resumed to Ovda International Airport, located 40 miles north of the city. Air traffic is also picking up at Eilat's city airport, which connects to Tel Aviv's Sde Dov Airport.
Susan Schneorr, a 38-year-old French native, gave up her tourist status to become an Eilat resident working in the tourism industry. At her office on Eilat's boardwalk, she markets day trips and package tours.
"Yes, Eilat was empty during the years of the intifada," Schneorr said, "but I still came because this is the place I want to raise my children."
It is still early in the morning, yet Schneorr's phones are constantly ringing. "It is a small Garden of Eden here," she said, grinning, "filled with Jewish people."
A Tourist's Guide to Enjoying Eilat
EATING: While falafels and shwarmas remain the city's staple cuisine, much effort is being made to cater to visitors with a more refined palate. At Jolson restaurant, located underneath the Herods Palace Hotel, chef Ronen Dovrat-Bloch set out to "make a restaurant that doesn't normally succeed in Eilat."
This Cordon Bleu-educated chef is hesitant to label his fare, but it leans toward a modern take on southern French cuisine. His very nonkosher menu features shrimp ravioli and blue crab broth, with leek fondue, as well as goose-leg confit and goose liver with steamed cabbage in red wine and spices.
Most of the coffee shops sprinkled along the boardwalk serve reliable sandwiches and salads. If you're craving foods from the Far East, try Giraffe, a noodle house that serves up family-style portions of Thai, Vietnamese and Japanese cuisine. The restaurant's patio is located in a quiet section of the boardwalk, just under the Herods Vitalis Hotel.
Sunbathers have their options, too. Located in the middle of the boardwalk is the Nikki beach -- think more South Beach, rather than Malibu. Here, you'll find tanned French lovelies picking at tasty Middle Eastern treats.
The cove at the Dolphin Reef (www.dolphinreef.co.il) offers a more family-friendly experience. Just 10 minutes by taxi from the center of town, this lush compound offers snorkeling and diving with dolphins, in addition to a handful of relaxation pools filled with salt, rain or seawater.
SHOPPING: A bonus of Eilat is its tax-free status, although some boutiques are still quite pricey. The promenade is chock full of fashionable boutiques with European and American duds. Be sure to make a stop at Le Boulevard, located in the Isrotel Royal Garden Hotel, for a wide selection of trendy boutiques, including L'Occitane and Tommy Hilfiger.
HOTELS AND SPAS: Check out the Herods Vitalis Spa Hotel, which caters to visitors serious about relaxing. The hotel's "no cellphone" and "no children" policy really help to maintain a serene environment.
For a particularly atypical experience, check into the Orchid Hotel (www.orchidhotel.co.il), which is located near the Egyptian border. Handsomely furnished in Thai décor (and not especially suitable for families), the Orchid is ideal for couples seeking an exotic, yet relaxing Eilat experience. Here, the spa facilities are basic, but the Thai massages are topnotch and affordable.