The launch of direct flights to Eilat this winter by the resort’s leading hotel chain, Isrotel, is an acknowledgement of both the importance of the UK market to the Red Sea city, and also a realisation that if potential visitors have to endure lengthy and inconvenient journeys they will simply choose to go elsewhere.
The move by the London-based hotel company follows a steep decline in UK visitor numbers to Eilat, from 45,000 in 1997, to 5,000 in 2003, when the Iraq War erupted. That figure, barely recovered to 6,000 in 2004. Last winter, with Eilat holidays hit by the credit crunch and images of the Gaza conflict, the number of UK visitors to Eilat fell to its lowest level since the Iraq war.
But while both factors undoubtedly contributed to the fall, there was a widespread acknowledgement in the Israel tourism industry that the absence of regular direct flights were a key factor in the decision by Jewish visitors to desert the resort.
By January, with the Gaza war raging, direct flights into Ovda had fallen from 18 to four per week. Among the casualties was the direct flight from London, operated by Longwood Holidays, which cancelled all but two direct flights to Ovda, following a sharp fall in new bookings.
The decision by Longwood to operate weekly flights was designed to offer an alternative to El Al, non-direct flight to Eilat.
Last winter – and for the previous few winters – El Al was offering onward flights to Eilat City airport from Ben Gurion for those taking its afternoon flight from Heathrow, arriving in the resort at around 11pm. For the outbound journey, passengers could check in bags just once, at Heathrow.
The transfer at Ben Gurion was relatively simple except for those travelling with babies or young children, for whom it meant transferring tired or sleeping infants from one plane to another, and a very late arrival after a journey of around eight hours (excluding the two to three hours spent at Heathrow prior to departure) .
The return journey via Ben Gurion was even more of a marathon. The airline offered its passengers the option of a single check-in, but only if they took its early-morning service from Tel Aviv.
To do so, Eilat passengers had to take a flight departing Eilat City at 7am, requiring a dawn departure from their Eilat hotel. If they wished to take advantage of El Al’s afternoon flight to London – which would permit them to leave Eilat in mid-afternoon – they were denied the single check-in at Eilat City.
This was again considered to be far too much trouble, especially for those with infants, buggies, etc. There was also the issue of effectively losing two days of a seven day trip: a Monday to Monday holiday became, in reality, a Tuesday to Sunday holiday.
It is no surprise, therefore, that UK Jews, who traditionally enjoy all that Eilat has to offer – and especially those with children – opted for the Canary Islands or southern Spain or Florida for their fix of winter sunshine.