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Alle elsker Eilat!


 

 World travelers home in on Eilat

 Once a tiny kibbutz on Israel's southernmost shore, today Eilat - with its dramatic red mountains and blue sea - is a major tourist draw. Now more tourism projects are planned in the city.

By Avigayil Kadesh

 

Swimming with the dolphins at Eilat’s Dolphin Reef. 


There are over 11,000 hotel rooms in Eilat, and the figure is growing. 

Tourists can explore the clear blue waters by boat. 

 

 Eilat gets year-round sunshine, with only an average of six days of rain annually.

Every week, direct flights bring throngs of tourists to Eilat, Israel’s southern Red Sea resort town. Coming from colder climes in Belgium, Denmark, England, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Holland, Italy, Norway, Poland, Russia, Sweden, Switzerland and soon Ukraine, these European visitors account for the largest block of visitors – second only to Israelis – sunbathing on Eilat’s mountain-framed beaches, diving in its clear blue waters, hiking or biking its nature trails, splashing with its dolphins and marveling at its coral reef.

With 51 hotels ranging from super-luxury to youth hostels, fine restaurants, nightclubs and VAT-free shopping, the sun-splashed city of 60,000 residents also is popular with North American tour groups such as Birthright. It will likely become an ever more common destination for world travelers as it beefs up its growing roster of tourist attractions and completes a new international airport.


Surprisingly, in a place where the temperature can soar to 45 degrees celsius (113 fahrenheit) in summer, the next major addition will be the Eilat Ice Park.

"It’s a great project and it will be open all year,” says Avi Kandelker, an Eilat native who heads the Eilat Tourist Bureau for the Israeli Ministry of Tourism (http://www.goisrael.com/Tourism_Euk/Destinations/Eilat/Eilat.htm). "It’s going to be really huge, topped by a dome that is nine stories high.”

Aside from the Olympic-size rink ringed by 3,500 seats, the complex will house a 400-seat theater for ice shows, a "snow” play area and an adjacent shopping center. "The indoor temperature will be 24 [75F] degrees -- not too cold,” he promises. The city already boasts Ice Space (http://www.ice-space.co.il), an ice sculpture exhibition and snowy play area (coats included) incongruously overlooking the Gulf of Eilat marina.

Divers’ paradise

Still, Eilat will surely remain better known for water than ice. The Red Sea is one of the best places in the world for snorkeling, diving and water sports amid a picturesque backdrop of reefs and shipwrecks.

No fewer than 13 licensed diving centers dot its beaches, along with nine water sport clubs. You can take a course or just an introductory dive, for ages 12 and up. Go parasailing (www.rsp-eilat.co.il); rent an underwater scooter, motor boat (www.grillboat.co.il), kayak or raft; or enjoy the sea from the deck of a cruise ship or glass-bottom boat available from dozens of businesses along the marina. Consistent strong winds and calm seas also make Eilat one of the world’s choice spots for kite surfing and wind surfing.

"Even during winter, we see Russian and Scandinavian tourists here lying on the beach, snorkeling, diving and swimming,” says Kandelker. Unlike the Mediterranean, whose waters get to a temperature of 17C (62.6F) in winter and 30C (86F) in summer, Eilat’s waters range between 21C (70F) in colder months and 25C in summer.

At Eilat’s Dolphin Reef (www.dolphinreef.co.il), home to a school of bottle-nosed dolphins, visitors from age eight and up can snorkel and dive; while from 10 and up, swimming with the dolphins is an option. The reef is a tranquil place to watch the creatures from a gently rolling dock or to immerse in one of three music-infused relaxation pools (for adults only).

The Underwater Observatory marine park and museum (http://www.coralworld.com/eilat) is Eilat’s No. 1 attraction, situated within the Coral Reserve. Sharks and sea turtles swim in large open-air custom-built tanks, where crowds gather for feeding time. The observatory provides a window onto the colorful fish and rich corals of the Red Sea.

The coral reef in Eilat extends 1,200 meters (a little more than half a mile) along the shore. This complex and delicate ecosystem houses more than 270 species of coral and 2,500 types of underwater creatures, some of them unique to the Red Sea. The "Japanese garden” at its southern end is the largest and most well-protected diving site in Eilat.

A bit of history

The name "Eilat” probably derives from the Hebrew word ayil, ram, an animal you’d typically find grazing here in the time of Abraham. The Bible records that on their way from Egypt, the Israelites "passed by the way of the plain of Elat," and King David is believed to have established a military defense line here.

David’s son, Solomon, developed the area during his reign (971-932 BCE), building a fleet of ships to bring back gold and spices from the land of Ophir. According to legend, the Queen of Sheba passed through Eilat on the way to visit Solomon’s Jerusalem palace.

During the reign of King Ahaz (734-728 BCE), Eilat was captured by Syria. From then until modern times, the city changed hands many times. The Egyptians called it Berenice, the Romans called it Aila and modern Palestinian Arabs called it Um Rashrash. As the years went by, its fortunes declined, particularly after the Ottoman Turks built a new port at nearby Aqaba.

That all changed on March 13, 1949, when the Palmach Negev and Golani brigades raised the Israeli flag over Eilat in the final military maneuver of the War of Independence, in accordance with the United Nations partition plan for Eilat to be the southernmost tip of the Jewish state. In December, the first inhabitants moved in to set up a kibbutz, and the modern city of Eilat was established officially in 1950.

Once Israel opened the Straits of Tiran in the 1956 Sinai Campaign, Eilat was free to begin developing into a major site for commerce, shipping and tourism.

Hiking, biking, birdwatching

The granite mountains and canyons that surround Eilat offer different levels of hiking trails as well as rappelling, cross-country running and jeep/4x4 tours. You can also see the scenery from the humpy back of a dromedary at the Bedouin-run Camel Ranch (www.camel-ranch.co.il).

This past winter, a 21-kilometer (13-mile) ring trail around Eilat was rebuilt for bikers in cooperation with Keren Kayemeth LeYisrael-Jewish National Fund (www.kkl.org.il/kkl/english). Most of the trail is perfect for families, says Kandelker, while the part that winds through the mountains challenges serious bikers. A bicycle trail within the city is now under construction, expected to reach as far as the Peace Promenade at the Gulf of Aqaba over the next few years.

Birdwatchers also flock to Eilat, a key stopover for migrating African and European birds. The International Birding and Research Centre (www.arava.org/birds-eilat) monitors the visiting birds and offers guided tours as well as a two-week session for volunteers during the autumn and spring migration. Here you’ll see hundreds of species from Asia and Europe as well as resident species, including steppe eagles, sparrow hawks, white storks, blackcap warblers, barn swallows, sun birds, shrikes, hoop larks and colorful flamingos and European bee-eaters.

Also in the Eilat area is the Hai Bar Nature Reserve (www.parks.org.il), an 8,000-acre sanctuary for many rare and endangered desert creatures including leopards, cheetahs, hyenas, gazelles and ostriches. Looking farther into the sky, the What’s Up observatory (http://eilatnature.com/?p=9) offers a glimpse of globular clusters, far-off galaxies and different types of nebula.

Eilat’s Botanical Garden and Organic Farm (http://www.botanicgarden.co.il) recently added a rainforest exhibit – no small feat in a city that only gets rain about six days a year.

If you do happen to visit when it’s raining or chilly, visit the Kings City high-tech Bible theme park (http://www.kingscity.co.il) or IMAX theater (www.imaxeilat.co.il) offering 3-D shows. Kings City just added an amusement park for families with children too young to appreciate the theme park.

What’s happening at the port?

Israel's only outlet to the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, Eilat is a critical point of entry for commercial goods. It is through Eilat that fuel oil from Egypt is piped to refineries in Ashkelon and Haifa, and it is Eilat that serves as a loading port for the minerals extracted from the Dead Sea and bound for export.

In 1985, the Israeli government designated Eilat as a free trade zone, eliminating most taxes on production and commerce.

This year, Israel is working to privatize the government-owned Eilat Port Company by selling all its shares. Minister of Finance Yuval Steinitz has said that this move is intended to promote competition within the port industry and bring greater prosperity to Israel's southern region by increasing cargo handling and tourist traffic at the Eilat port.

Growing tourist infrastructure

At the same time, Eilat is poised for a general facelift as the Ministry of Tourism, together with the Eilat municipality and Eilat Hotels Association (ww.eilathotels.org.il), invest heavily in upgrading and renewing the tourism area in the coming years. "Eilat is going to be a priority zone, which means the state will give incentives for building hotels and attractions,” Kandelker says.

A central goal is to attract more worldwide travelers. In 2009, 2,301,500 tourists came to Eilat, but only 253,000 of them were foreigners. Part of the problem is access. Eilat’s small airport can handle only domestic traffic coming from Israel’s one international airport near Tel Aviv, Ben-Gurion. A domestic carrier, Arkia (www.arkia.co.il), has long run these one-hour flights. Last year, El Al Israel Airlines (www.elal.co.il) started offering them as well, making it easier for global travelers to reach Eilat.

European airlines land in Ovda, a mixed commercial and military airstrip 45 minutes from Eilat. But Ovda is not large enough to handle jumbo jets. "If you want to promote tourism, you need a new airport that every plane can land in,” says Kandelker. The good news is that the Israel Airport Authority (www.iaa.gov.il) is laying the groundwork for a new international airport about 15 miles north of Eilat.

This project could lead to a greater need for accommodations for tourists and business travelers. Today, Eilat’s 51 hotels and youth hostels run just under 70 percent of capacity on average. The newest hotel, the Central Park, opened in 2004. Over the next 10 years, additional development is expected.

Kandelker says that Eilat’s mayor, Yitzhak Halevi, is keen on building a large meeting center. At the moment, big confabs such as the Eilat-Eilot Renewable Energy Conference (www.eilatenergy.org) must use a variety of venues since the largest space available seats just 1,000.

Despite these constraints, the number of festivals and events held in Eilat is growing every year. In January, there’s the Red Sea Classical Music Festival (http://www.redseaclassicalfestival.com) and the International Bellydancing Festival (http://www.eilatfestival.com/?pageId=273); in March, the Chamber Music Festival (http://www.eilat-festival.co.il); the Pride Festival for the LGBT community in June; the 25-year-old Red Sea Jazz Festival (http://www.redseajazzeilat.com/en/about) in August (and its new winter edition); plus a host of other events.

For Kandelker, whose parents moved to Israel from India in 1953, the transformation of the city is spectacular. "I remember Eilat when it was just a few small hotels,” he says with a laugh. Today, it has 11,002 hotel rooms – and counting.

Photos courtesy of the Eilat Tourist Bureau.

 

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