The annual Eilat Promotion Travel Agents Conference re-launched Monday, aiming to influence the 221 participating tourism professionals to help the Red Sea city raise its profile as an attractive international travel destination.
"Our goal is to reach 1 million tourists in Eilat in the winter of 2007-08, an increase of 50 percent over this year," David Fattal, chairman of the Eilat Hotels Association which hosted the event, said at the opening Monday. "It's a miracle that after the war in Lebanon we brought representatives from 21 different countries to the conference. It has brought great optimism to the city."
The conference was cancelled three years ago due to the Intifada and was re-launched this year in an effort to establish the city as a popular alternative for European vacationers, particularly in the Winter. Attendees included representatives from Russia, Scandinavia, China, the UK and other Western and Eastern European countries.
"Eilat is a tourist city and it is in the municipality's interest to advance the industry here," said Eilat Mayor Meir Itzhak Halevi, who stressed that building a new international airport was of primary importance to the city.
"The plans that are in place and need to be put into action, sent to tender, so that in three years there should be an airport that can handle flights from all over the world," the mayor said.
"We need to do everything necessary to press for the decision to give the project the go ahead."
Other points on the municipality's agenda include making the promenade more presentable. "All the shacks on the promenade should be eliminated," said Halevi, who wants to establish the city as a center for congresses and trade events and to encourage the building of new attractions.
Touching on each of these issues, Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog gave the Government's backing to advancing tourism to the city.
"We will present our working plan for tourism in 2007 around December 22 based on the recommendations of the Ernst & Young report on the industry and Eilat will be a very important part of that plan," Herzog said. "This will focus on marketing, enhancing infrastructure and boosting the quality of the tourism product to excel and compete with the competitors in the region."
Herzog added that the Government would continue to work towards providing financial safety nets for charter airlines flying direct to Eilat.
Attracting European charter companies to fly the Eilat route was high on the conference's agenda after foreign tourist traffic to the city seesawed the last few years.
The Eilat Hotels Association reported that during the Intifada, only 5% of all tourists to Eilat were from abroad, compared to 40% in 2000. That improved to 15% of the total in 2006. Again this winter, the war in Lebanon, dramatically slowed European interest to come to Eilat.
"We were planning on operating three flights per week from Norway, Denmark and Sweden but changed our plans because there was no demand," said Takis Filippopoulos, commercial director Scandinavia of tour operator Kuoni.
While there are no direct flights as a result this winter from Scandinavia, the company is now looking to start the three flights again in winter 2007-08.
Similarly, Rafi Caplin, managing director of UK-based Longwood Holidays said it was unlikely another flight would be added anytime soon to the once weekly schedule currently operating between Eilat and London. "When the first flight fills to a point where it earns money, we will add another flight," Caplin said. "Tourism in the UK is in a state of flux and Israel is not exactly the flavor of the month there [given the negative images from the Intifada and the war in Lebanon]."
As a result, Caplin, who said he has been promoting Israel for 30 years, said initial marketing efforts should concentrate on the Jewish market.
He was also critical of the mass appeal of the conference saying that more of a focus should be placed on creating a forum to discuss with partners who know the Eilat market, how to effectively market the city.
For Wilson Yeung, sales and marketing director of Hong Kong-based Sun n Sea holidays, a first-time visitor to Israel, however, the conference gave a stronger sales pitch for prospective travelers.
"We need to know to tell people about Eilat, to see how to promote it," Yeung said. "Until now there has been no interest in Eilat from China, but given the marketability of the city throughout the year, I think there is great potential."