Eilat beach 298.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The average Israeli or, for that matter, foreign tourist generally thinks of Eilat in terms of a sun-kissed fun-filled resort where the only potential minefields are over-exposure to the sun and splashing out on too many VAT-free shopping sprees. If that includes you, you'd only be partly right. The Red Sea town, it seems, is rapidly becoming something of a major cultural center too. And, if the recent Red Sea Classical Festival is anything to go by, Eilat is putting its money where its mouth is.
Consider just some of the cultural events that now take place down south: The long-running Red Sea Jazz Festival, which has become a permanent end-of-summer vacation feature over its 21 years, the annual Chamber Music Festival, the Teimaniada and the aforementioned four-day classical bash, sponsored by the Isrotel hotel chain. Add to that list, a burgeoning film festival, several sports events and a new theater festival and you start to get the emerging cultural picture. This coming weekend is the Classicameri festival.
"The classical music festival is a good example of what we are trying to do here," says Red Sea Tourism Administration director Yossi Anni. "Yes, most people probably think of Eilat as a place where you just chill out on the beach or by the hotel pool. But we are trying to enhance that image. Most Israelis don't think of Eilat as a major cultural center, but I think that is starting to change."
According to Anni, cultural and sporting events bring in close to 170,000 visitors to Israel every year. "The Red Sea Jazz Festival has around 20,000 visitors and the film festival brings in another 3,500. Then there are sports events like the Sportiada, Triathlon and Ironman. They bring another 80,000-100,000 here."
The timing of the festivals and other cultural activities is also an important factor, as is the type of tourist they target. According to Anni, having the Red Sea Classical Festival in January makes sense. It helps fill the hotels at a time of year when they don't normally enjoy full occupancy. "Also, events like the classical festival bring in a different kind of visitor," he says.
Judging by the patrons of the King Solomon Hotel during the Red Sea Classical Festival, it looked like half of the country's better heeled residents had relocated down south for a long luxurious weekend. No expense, it seems, was spared. Food was plentiful and frequent, and transport was laid on from the hotel to the hangar where the concerts were held at Eilat Port. Once at the port, we were treated to pre-concert cocktails and tasty niblets and, if that wasn't enough, there were several steaming tureens of hot soup awaiting us on our return to the hotel after the musical entertainment. Isrotel and the festival organizers had pulled out all the stops to make sure the festivalgoers felt pampered and that the long trip down south was value for money, and then some.
"One of the things we are trying to do with the classical festival is to bring people to Eilat who wouldn't normally come here," declares Isrotel general manager Raffi Sadeh, "and at a different time of year than the normal high season."
According to Sadeh, the classical festival has gained momentum over its seven-year history. "I think events like this festival are making a difference. In the first year most of the people who came were die-hard classical festival fans. This year, there all sorts of people here, and not just those who have a deep understanding of classical music - and they are all having a good time. Classical music fans can catch [festival artistic director and conductor Valery] Gergiev at concerts in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and other places around the world. What they get here is culture and a vacation. That's a great combination. The Kfar Blum classical music festival is based on a similar idea."
Eilat is, of course, one of the great get-away places. It is almost like going abroad. As you drive or fly across the Arava desert you gradually leave the hustle and bustle and tensions of everyday life in "the real world" behind, and your pulse starts to settle into a more pedestrian pace. "The Swiss go off to ski resorts, where they mix taking it easy with sporting activities. That's the added value of coming to a festival, for example, in Eilat. You get to rest, eat well and enjoy some top-quality cultural events at the same time."
If there was anything of a "downside" to the classical music bash it was the premises used for the classical concerts. A hangar is not the most comfortable place to perform classical music. The seats were far from the padded pews patrons enjoy at, for example, the Opera House in Tel Aviv, although the sound people did an admirable job in ensuring the acoustics were commensurately audience friendly in the ad-hoc voluminous music auditorium.
Eilat Mayor Yitzhak Halevy was understandably a busy man during the festival, and is naturally delighted with the response to all the cultural events that now take place in his town. "It is wonderful to see 7,000 music lovers come to Eilat," he beams. "And we want to upgrade all these events." Does that include providing a purpose-built concert hall that would serve the classical music festival and some of the other music events in Eilat? "I would very much like that to happen," says Halevy. "It is just a matter of time."
Israelis and non-Israelis who visited Eilat in the Seventies and haven't been back since would be amazed at the transformation that has taken place there. Back then, for many, Eilat was just a stopping-off and stocking-up point en route to the beaches of the Sinai. There were less than a handful of decent hotels and the beaches were dotted with tents and low-budget tourists. Today, there are dozens of top-grade hotels and restaurants, and the town is home to close to 50,000 residents.
Halevy sees Eilat's cultural events as a means of attracting tourists on a grand scale: "I believe Eilat should invest heavily in education and culture for two main reasons. We have tough competition from the east - Aqaba - and the south [Sinai]. I think the only way we can compete is by making Eilat an exclusive place of culture, with festivals, fairs, congresses, symposiums and academies. We also have a branch of Ben-Gurion University here, and I want to reach a student body of 3,000. There is no reason why we shouldn't achieve that. That will bring young people to Eilat, and will be good for the future of the town."
Like Sadeh, the mayor also sees added value in combining relaxation with cultural and sporting endeavor. "I don't believe that just offering sunbathing opportunities is the way to go for us. You've got to offer quality, and have a quality local community to support that."
Halevy sees an even brighter future for Eilat. "I've got plans for more festivals and other events here. I think when you get the momentum going you get an appetite for more." Judging by the mounds of food available at the marina-side get together, where we met, that appetite will be duly catered for.
The writer was a guest of the Isrotel King Solomon Hotel.
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