The tragedy that is Eilat

There have been recent articles in a number of mainstream Israeli daily newspapers inquiring as to where all the Eilat tourists have gone.

Eilat (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
There have been recent articles in a number of mainstream Israeli daily newspapers inquiring as to where all the Eilat tourists have gone.
Various reasons and so-called expert views have been advanced in these articles, ranging from the political situation to perceived dangers due to instability in the region and the like. Forgive me, but I have rarely heard such absurd nonsense. There are no doubt individuals who will not go to Eilat for the reasons advanced, but only a few.
I am a retired barrister, author and someone with a background in and knowledge of the hotel industry. I first came to Eilat in 1967 when it was little more than a desert and regularly visited thereafter, often spending three months at a time in the region. I have stayed in many, albeit not all, of the hotels in Eilat and know them reasonably well. Some seven years ago I decided to purchase an apartment in Eilat to use for my retirement and I now spend nearly six months a year there. My wife was born in Israel.
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So why has Eilat apparently become “nogo zone” for many tourists? The principle reason is that while the government and municipality recognize the vital importance of tourism to the economy, this is not a view shared by the hotel industry. This industry is and has been for many years interested solely in short-term profit. The hotel owners appear to ignore the fact that the hotel industry is a service industry. Let me explain in more detail.
Some 20 or so years ago there was a reasonable balance between foreign tourists and Israelis staying in Eilat’s hotels. A European couple would book into a so-called five-star hotel. In the room next door there would be an Israeli family, often with three or four children. These children would often be permitted to run riot throughout the hotel, its corridors and reception areas.
If that was not sufficient, when the couple came down for dinner they would often find themselves sitting next to a table with screaming babies and children, not to mention very poor service.
The poor service was as a result of a system which permitted Israelis who had just left the army to receive a significant lump sum after a year or so of working in this industry. Minimum training was given and the individuals concerned rarely had the necessary expertise. The ludicrous idea that all you had to do was give someone who had just come out of the army a uniform to turn them into professional waiters prevailed.
Needless to say the couple in question never returned, and worse, they made their views clear to their friends and relatives on their return to their own country.
What then happened was that there were fewer tourists the following year, and to compensate for that situation the hotels began catering more to Israelis. Today, while you are likely to see some Russian and French tourists at certain times of year, for the most part European tourism is minimal.
It is undeniable fact that there are no true five-star hotels in Eilat, whatever they choose to call themselves. There is only one hotel which approaches a four-star rating; most of the others barely merit three. Their prices are frankly ludicrous compared to true four- or five-star European hotels. The food is rarely above average and certainly not Cordon Bleu or anywhere near it.
It is essential that not only the government but also the people understand one vital fact: every tourist or investor in Israel is a potential ambassador. When they go back to their own countries they give their friends and acquaintances an account of their experiences. If those experiences were bad ones, the consequences are self evident.
There appears to be a view prevalent among the hierarchy of hotel management that if people do not like how they do things here, they should stay away.
Well they don’t like what has been going on, and they have stayed away.
When Aqaba in Jordan began to be developed I was contacted by the manager of one of the new hotels there, who was aware that I was a regular visitor to Eilat, often staying for prolonged periods. I was offered a suite at virtually half the price I was then paying in Eilat, with the best personal service and numerous other extras, in addition to a taxi to the border every morning, should I desire it. I gave it a lot of thought, but eventually refused. Said refusal was not based upon sound business logic.
What is happening in Eilat ought to and now appears to be a matter of public concern. Tourism is a vital lifeline. The government and the Eilat Municipality are both starting to become concerned. While the present situation is not irreversible, it will take many years to put Eilat back on the map as a tourist venue. And it can only be accomplished if someone in a position of power starts to get to grips with the prevailing situation and in particular the hotels in Eilat.
Existing hotels have to be given true ratings and visitors have to be clearly informed of the consequences of staying in many of them compared to what they are used to in their own countries. New hotels which properly cater to tourists have to be created, to high professional standards.
Proper guidelines, enforced and supervised by the municipality, as is the case in other prime tourist venues around the world, are also required. Trained staff who live in Eilat, cuisine which matches the advertised rating and many other changes are required to attract “proper” tourism. If these changes don’t happen, you will soon be having to search for a European face! In 1967 Eilat was a truly beautiful venue mainly because of three things: the sun, the Red Sea and the mountains. Those three things are still there. It is true that Eilat needed the investment in hotels to begin with. However, it has paid a very high price for the type of investment it attracted. The venture capitalists and the like who financed the hotels have, I suspect, made their money back many times over. It is now time for Eilat, its people and Israel to benefit from this location. It can only happen if those in positions of power get to grips with the reality of the situation and move to bring it in line with other tourist venues. To carry on ignoring the situation or trying to find excuses is simply to deprive Israel of much-needed hard currency, and many Israelis of proper employment.
The author is a retired barrister, married with two children, and the holder of two law degrees from the UK. He has connections with Eilat which date back to 1967 and now resides in Eilat some six months in the year.