Enhancing Its Charm Amid The Calm
Tue, 10/22/2013
Travel Writer
Tourists can explore undersea fauna at the Underwater Observatory Marine Park. Photo courtesy Israel Ministry of Tourism
Tourists can explore undersea fauna at the Underwater Observatory Marine Park. Photo courtesy Israel Ministry of Tourism

Across the Sinai Peninsula from Israel, turmoil rages in Egypt; to the northeast, Syria plunges ever deeper into civil war, with violence spilling over into Lebanon.

But along the palm-fringed waterfront of Eilat, the living is as easy as ever. This year, that waterfront in the North Beach tourist district boasts a new promenade, with renovated walkways and benches for sea-gazing, newly planted trees and flowers, terraces leading down to the beach and a network of bike paths.

It’s all part of a strategy to cement Eilat’s position as the premier resort on the Red Sea — a literal and metaphorical oasis not only from the notorious desert heat, but also from the turbulence that has upended much of the region.

“It’s quiet here, and it’s safe, whatever is going on. We’re far away from the whole thing,” said Ola Ogbah, a spokeswoman for the Dan Eilat Red Sea Hotel. “And of course, the temperature is very nice. When it’s winter for us, it’s not a winter for them, really,” she added, referring to the foreigners who fill Eilat’s resorts from November through February.

Europeans who historically vacationed at Egyptian Red Sea resorts — such as Sharm El-Sheikh — have been wintering elsewhere since the 2011 overthrow of the Mubarak regime. Many of these sun-seekers head for the tranquil shores of Eilat, so that while land crossings into southern Israel are down from past years, overall tourism is holding steady, according to figures from the Israeli Ministry of Tourism.

Eilat is responding with an ambitious scheme for enhancing the city’s touristic charm. That includes not only renovating the North Beach infrastructure and adding new attractions — a three-year plan for which the city has invested heavily — but also integrating this pleasant residential city of 60,000 more organically with the beachside resort areas, according to Avi Kandelker, director of the Eilat Tourist Office.

Case in point: the new Ice Park that opened last fall near the eastern stretch of North Beach. With an Olympic-size skating rink under a soaring geodesic-dome ceiling, a boutique shopping mall, a “multidimensional” movie theater, and an amusement park that includes an igloo with real falling snow for children, the mega-attraction is designed to impress. “When it’s 45 degrees Celsius (over 100 Fahrenheit) outside, ice is very appealing,” said Kandelker, noting that the indoor temperature is a comfortable 75 Fahrenheit inside the Ice Park. 

If visitors tire of beaches and malls, Eilat offers an ever-busier calendar of winter events. From Chanukah through Passover, there are festivals nearly every week, with themes ranging from belly dancing and live jazz to bird watching (Eilat is an international mecca for birders) and street artists.

One of the most popular recent events is the Eilat Half Desert Marathon, a late-November race that challenges runners to overcome the parched desert climate on a route that wends along Bedouin smuggling paths, granite mountains and an ancient gold mine.

Of course, many visitors head directly for the traditional resort activities: soaking up rays on the North Beach sands, snorkeling and diving the coral reefs further south, and exploring tropical undersea fauna at the Underwater Observatory Marine Park. But Kandelker said the planned center-city facelift is aimed at luring travelers off the beach and into the historic urban core.

Already, the promenade from the Meridian Hotel to Mall Hayam, the North Beach shopping mecca, has been renovated; the square just between Mall Hayam and the lagoon has also been beautified, drawing midday picnickers and couples out for an evening stroll. “More and more, we have tourists taking the city bus from North Beach to explore,” Kandelker said.

Next up is a refurbishing of Hayovel Park, Eilat’s central green space, with plans for a skate park, miniature golf and a Bellagio-style water show with a musical fountain and effervescent light shows.

“Not a lot of tourists used to go to the park, and we wanted to make it more attractive for them,” explained Kandelker. The spiffed-up impression will start on the ride into town from the airport on Hat Marim Boulevard, Eilat’s main business drag, which is also slated for renovation.

Local hotels are also investing in upgrades, diversifying their offerings for a more global crowd. “In the winter we have more and more people from Northern Europe, from Russia, from the U.S.,” said Ogbah of the Dan Eilat. “It’s developing more and more every year. There are more tourists, more action.” She said the Dan had recently spruced up its beachfront area, renovated the main dining room, and added a new children’s club with Play Station and Facebook access for the teenage set and drawing and movies for smaller kids.

Furthest down the hotel strip, the lavish Herods hotel complex undertook a major renovation last year, with final touches still underway for this winter season, according to spokeswoman Nicolle Algazy. Mindful of the chaos abroad, the resort is committed to providing its guests with maximum relaxation and peace of mind, Algazy said.

“Tourists feel much more safe in Israel because we have lots of soldiers everywhere, holding guns,” she explained. “We don’t have the kind of threats we had in the past.”

In addition to vigilance at the borders, Eilat also has a special tourism police force that patrols North Beach; some guests feel so safe that they leave their wallets and passports right on the beach when they go for a swim, said Kandelker.

“Without tourism, there’d be no city,” he said. “Eilat is a modern city, the only Western city on the Red Sea. It’s in everybody’s interest to keep it calm and quiet so tourism will thrive in what we call the Red Sea Riviera.” 

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