The Brit who did so much for Israel’s tourist industry

Entrepeneur David Lewis, chair of Isrotel and man behind much of Eilat’s development, dies at 87.

David Lewis 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
David Lewis 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It is almost ironic that David Lewis, the British entrepreneur who did so much to boost Israel’s tourist industry and the nation’s economy, should die at a time when there are protest demonstrations throughout the country demanding social justice and more jobs.
Lewis, who more than 30 years ago fell in love with the natural beauty of Eilat, needed little persuasion from then Tourism Minister Gideon Patt to invest in Israel’s southern resort area and to convince more Europeans, especially from Britain, to follow the sun.
Lewis built several hotels there, and not only put Eilat on the international tourist map, but over the years provided jobs for thousands of people – and not just for regular hotel staff, but also for entertainers, who were part of the attraction of the Eilat scene. Construction workers involved in building his hotels as well as people employed in boardwalk shops surrounding the King Solomon Palace Hotel - which Lewis founded in 1981 - also benefited.
The opening of the King Solomon approximately three decades ago, received tremendous coverage in the Israeli media. There were hardly any luxury hotels in Eilat, and probably the most luxurious at the time was the Neptune. The King Solomon Palace was unique in that it offered everything the tourist could want in one location. The furthest anyone had to wander outside was to the pool or to the store and restaurant-lined boardwalk.
Success breeds success and Lewis lost little time in either building or acquiring other hotels in Eilat. Realizing that a resort area must have budgetpriced as well as luxury hotels, he included both in his development plans and made sure that each hotel had its own unique ambience. Many also included conference facilities to bring businessmen to the ever-growing city.
Lewis also thought about family vacations and included budget-priced apartment-style accommodations with two adjoining suites and self-catering for families of limited means.
Initially, his hotels were all close to each other, which made it possible for relatives and friends in different economic brackets to be close to each other, and able to sit around the same pool or dine in the same restaurant, while paying whatever it was they could afford for their hotel bill.
Eventually, Lewis opened hotels in Tel Aviv, Mitzpe Ramon, the Dead Sea and the Carmel Forest Spa near Haifa where man-made luxury and nature’s beauty combine to offer a memorable experience.
Once Lewis started building hotels and tourist attractions in Eilat, other hotel chains followed, as well as entertainment and amusement companies.
Today there are more than 50 hotels in Eilat, eight of them part of Lewis’s Isrotel chain.
Lewis went a step further, and two years ago Isrotel launched its own charter flights from Luton airport in London to Eilat. At the time, Lewis said that Isrotel always tried to be innovative in solving problems and in giving tourists better service.
Lewis was a man small in stature, but a giant in vision and one of nature’s gentlemen – neither pompous nor a braggart, and unfailingly courteous and polite.
Like so many other Jews, especially the offspring of parents from Eastern Europe, Lewis made his initial fortune in the textile industry after serving as a volunteer navigator for the British Royal Air Force during World War II.
In 1948, together with his three brothers, Lewis opened a women’s clothing store in London and expanded the enterprise to eventually become the River Island clothing company.
In 1973, in the aftermath of the Yom Kippur War, Lewis and his family established a foundation to help rehabilitate soldiers who had been injured in the war. Later, he was also a generous donor to the Schneider Children’s Hospital and Medical Center as well as many organizations and institutions in Eilat.
Two years ago, he was feted by Eilat when the city inaugurated the David Lewis promenade on its 60th anniversary.
Mayor Yitzhak Halevi noted the impact that Lewis had on Eilat’s economy, not just through Isrotel but through his commitment to the city’s development, which was cemented in the belief that every business is rooted in its surroundings.
Lewis played such an important role in contributing to and inspiring the city’s development that in the three decades of his operations there, its resident population grew from around 20,000 to more than 60,000.
The ever-modest Lewis said at the launch of the promenade that Israel has courageously faced wars, terrorism and intifadas, and the way for him to express his admiration for Israel’s resilience was to do what he had done.
President Shimon Peres was also on hand for the occasion.
In the early 1990s, then finance minister Peres invited Lewis to Mitzpe Ramon, which at the time was in worse shape than Eilat had been when Lewis first went there. Lewis nonetheless saw its potential and built an elegant resort village.
Lewis was targeted in recent years by anti-Israel boycott groups which called for the boycott of companies under the umbrella of the Lewis Trust Group of which he was chairman. These included the River Island clothing chain, Isrotel Hotels, Ibrotel Hotels in Spain and Portugal and Britannia Pacific Properties – a diversified international investment company headquartered in London.
For all that, Lewis, who was diagnosed with cancer last year and who died on Tisha Be’av – August 9 – at age 87, had what the British refer to as a good innings. This year, he and his wife Ruth celebrated their 60th wedding anniversary. He is survived by her, their five children and 11 grandchildren.