A sense of optimism has returned to the tourism industry as Eilat prepares to welcome 230 travel agents scheduled to attend the annual Eilat Travel Agents Conference, which will be held next week for the first time in three years. The Eilat Hotel Association, which is organizing the conference, noted a growing demand for participation in the event, despite the "grim prospects of foreign tourism in Eilat for the winter of 2006/7 and cancellations of charter flights [to the city]." "The high demand stirs up hope that reservation rates would subsequently surge and that incoming tourism will hence pick up," it said. The conference had previously run from 1982 to 2003 when it was cancelled due to the Intifada. The association said it invested NIS 1.5 million in reestablishing the conference in partnership with the Tourism Ministry and El Al Israel Airlines. But the optimism may prove to be a bit premature after the Histadrut Labor Union declared a nationwide strike, which closed down Ben-Gurion and Eilat Airports, and will prevent the agents from arriving if it continues. Agents from 20 different countries are booked to attend the conference, including some that are not active in promoting Eilat such as Bulgaria, Belarus, China and India. Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog, El Al Chairman Haim Romano and Gabi Ophir, CEO of the Israel Airports Authority are among those scheduled to speak at the event which will run from Monday through Wednesday. BMI requests flights to Israel Also indicating heightened interest in bringing tourists to Israel, the Tourism Ministry said it has received a request from British charter company British Midland Airways (BMI) to start scheduled flights to Israel from Heathrow Airport in London.The ministry said it received the request after Tourism Minister Isaac Herzog, the ministry's Director-General Nahum Itzkovich and Israel's economic attache in London Shmuel Ben-Tovim met with BMI representatives during the World Travel Market in London earlier this month. A spokesperson for the ministry said the request has been forwarded to the Transportation Ministry and the Civil Aviation Authority for consideration. Sde Boker hotel breaks ground The Negev Local Council said this week that building has started on a new NIS 50m. hotel located on Kibbutz Sde Boker next to the grave of David Ben-Gurion. The 120 rooms planned for the hotel, which is being built on a 40-dunam plot, each will come with a court yard and separate entrance. The hotel also will have a heated swimming pool, treatment rooms and a gym. The first stage of the project is expected to be completed by the end of 2007. The project was initiated by Kibbutz Sde Boker and businessmen Ronnie Peled and Dani Ovadia "who instructed the planners to place a special emphasis on comfort," the council said. Jerusalem hotels rank high Five Jerusalem hotels ranked in the top 10 hotels in the Middle East in a poll by readers of US travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler. In top spot was Amman's Grand Hyatt followed closely by Jerusalem's King David and David Citadel hotels in second and third place, respectively. The Inbal Jerusalem was ranked fifth by the readers while the Regency Jerusalem came in eighth and the Dan Panorama took the 10th position. Two other hotels in Amman made the top 10 list with the remaining two places occupied by a hotel in Dubai and one in Oman. The magazine gave the results of its "2006 Readers Choice Awards" in its November issue. which graded different locations and services according to region. The magazine ranked Jerusalem as the third most desirable city to visit in the Middle East-Africa region behind Cape Town and Marrakesh. Beirut came in fourth and Dubai listed as fifth in the region. Avis launches sms service Car rental company Avis has launched a new service for customers to receive price suggestions for vehicle hire via sms when traveling abroad. The service takes away the need for customers to call customer service representatives for information while planning their trip. Travelers need just send an sms with the name of the destination to number 2722 and an Avis representative will return the call with suitable suggestions and the option to make the reservation the same day.