Why does Israel make it so hard to visit Eilat?
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The number of British visitors to Israel's south has plummeted. No wonder: where are the regular direct flights?
Israel's Red Sea resort of Eilat is not, it seems, nearly as popular with the Anglo-Jewish market as it once was. Statistics from Israel's Ministry of Tourism reveal that the number of British visitors has plummeted from a high of 45,000 in 1997 to a low of 5,000 in 2003 - recovering to just 6,000 last year.
So why are we no longer flocking to Israel's south to soak up the winter-round sunshine, luxuriate in its world-class hotels, snorkel round the coral reef, take desert tours or generally chill out - all just five hours' flying time from London?
The clue may lie in that last phrase, "just five hours from London", an assertion no longer as accurate as it once was.
Up to two years ago, El Al, Israel's national airline, had a weekly direct flight throughout the winter to Ovda - indeed, those with long memories will remember when El Al operated two weekly flights in winter. Monarch, too, flew direct to the desert airport from Luton.
Last winter, Longwood Holidays, the biggest operator to Eilat, provided a direct charter flight on specific dates, including the peak periods of Christmas and Pesach, using Israir, which shares its owners with the recently privatised El Al. This wasn't perfect - the irregular dates were inconvenient - and customers were not always happy with their experience. Last February, the JC reported that customers were enraged when their flight time was changed from 6.30pm to 8.30am, depriving 230 people of a full day in the resort. But at least there were a few direct flights.
For the upcoming winter season, El Al is still not flying directly but instead offering onward flights from Tel Aviv for those taking the afternoon flight from Heathrow, arriving at Eilat City just after 11pm. You check in bags just once and the transfer at Ben Gurion is quick and painless.
Returning, however, is not quite as simple. Customers receive the same painless single check-in, but only on its early-morning flight - meaning a flight departing Eilat City at 7am, to pick up its morning flight at Ben-Gurion at 9.15am. If you want to catch a later flight from Tel Aviv - as most of us would - you have to check in twice.
Longwood is again running direct flights this winter with another operator - Sun D'Or - but not in late November or early December, limiting our holiday options.
Perhaps the one bright spot is a Tourism Ministry initiative to encourage UK visitors to Eilat. They have persuaded Thomsonfly, which last November launched direct flights from Luton and Manchester to Tel Aviv, to offer free onward flights to Eilat for those booking their flights and Eilat hotel accommodation with Thomsonfly. But it is still not flying directly.
Israel wants - and often, when times are tough, needs - our business, and we love to go to Israel. You have only to look at the buoyant statistics for visitors from the UK to the rest of Israel to see that there is no reluctance on the part of the Anglo-Jewish community to visit Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Netanya, Herzliya and all points north. The figures are rising steadily, with 175,000 Brits visiting the country in 2007, and this year's figures are expected to top 200,000 by the end of the festivals in October. We go because we love the country; we kvell like proud parents when we see the spectacular new airport, the streamlined trains, the ever-growing network of wide, American-style highways, fabulous hotels, the superb restaurants, the great shops; we buy second homes in Herzliya and Netanya's South Beach in our thousands.
It would be astonishing, therefore, if we didn't also crave the winter sun and all the other pleasures that Eilat can provide - in preference to those of the Canary Islands or the Caribbean, neither of which offers us an abundance of kosher gourmet restaurants, and the feeling that we are supporting the economy of a country that, in the main, our community cares passionately about.
So why does the country's national airline make it so difficult for us to get there? If their explanation is that we are not going in such numbers as before, and it is not, therefore, commercially viable, they need to think whether there isn't a lot of chicken and egg; whether a lot of people who might go to Eilat are not doing so because it is such a pain to reach, but might well do so if there was a regular, well-promoted weekly flight.
Jan Shure is the JC's travel editor