UK tourism to Eilat has hit its lowest point since the Iraq war following the withdrawal of weekly direct flights from London.
Longwood Holidays, the largest UK operator to the Israeli resort, has cancelled all but two individual direct flights to Ovda, following a sharp fall in new bookings in late December.
Tourism experts blamed the fall on the economic climate. But according to Pini Shani, head of the Overseas Department at Israel’s Tourism Ministry, the situation was “not helped” by Israel’s Gaza offensive.
Mr Shani said the number of weekly charter flights into Ovda had fallen from 18 at the start of the season to just four. British tourism to Eilat has been falling since 1997, when 45,000 people visited. Numbers fell to a low of 5,000 in 2003 at the start of the Iraq war, recovering to 6,000 last year.
Until Longwood MD Rafi Caplin took the decision to operate direct flights this winter with Israeli charter airline Sun D’Or, there had been no regular weekly direct flights between the UK and Eilat since 2006, when El Al and Monarch withdrew from the route.
Longwood’s weekly flights began in November and were due to continue until May. Only two direct flights remain — February 16, for UK half-term and April 7, for Passover. Passengers due to fly at other times have been offered flights via Tel Aviv or a full refund.
Mr Caplin said: “The whole season was quieter than last year, but when the Gaza incursion began, new bookings just dried up. We cannot run flights where the load factor is so low. Demand from the UK has fallen and there has been no co-ordinated marketing campaign to make the public aware of Eilat.”
In contrast, Egypt, where Longwood also operates, has spent huge sums on a campaign to promote its Red Sea Riviera.
David Lewis, chairman of Isrotel, which has eight hotels in the resort, said it had tried to support the flights by offering a “limited subsidy” to keep the charters going. But, he added: “When Gaza was at its hottest, it wasn’t thought sufficient, so we concentrated on improving connections from Ben-Gurion to Eilat.”
While believing “Gaza is largely to blame” for the drop, he also pointed to the weakness of sterling and “the economic climate which has affected many other holiday destinations, not just Eilat”.
A two-week bridge holiday in Eilat which would have seen 50 people fly from London has been cancelled.
Bridge-school owner Harold Schogger said: “It is a two-week trip that we have run for four years. When the direct flights were cancelled, Longwood offered us flights via Tel Aviv which would have seen us arrive at Eilat Central at 11.10pm, instead of around 6pm. On the return, we would have had to check in at 4am for a 6am departure instead of mid-afternoon.”
Westminster councillor Daniel Astaire, who had been planning a trip with two friends, said: “My friends are both doctors so they can only go at certain times. The aggravation of getting to Eilat via Tel Aviv — especially with a young baby — just made it impossible. We are going to Florida instead.”
Tony and Valerie Mann from Edgware said: “We are going to Eilat for two weeks in March. We have been going for a couple of weeks every winter for many years, flying to Ovda. We are now taking an early-morning flight to Tel Aviv and an onward flight to Eilat.
For the return, we are flying to Tel Aviv the previous day and staying overnight to get an early morning flight, so we lose a day in Eilat. It is very inconvenient and very expensive.”