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April 4, 2018 12:54 pm

Will Eilat’s Ramon Airport Revolutionize Tourism to the Red Sea Resort?

avatar by Gil Zohar

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The interior of the Ramon airport. Photo: Gil Zohar.

With the Ramon Airport set to begin service on October 28, officials hope that the state-of-the-art facility will boost tourism to the once-sleepy Red Sea resort city of Eilat. But will a gleaming airport bring the crowds?

Perched on the 50-meter-high control tower, airport manager Hanan Moscovitz explained that the facility will replace Eilat’s Yaakov Hozman Airport, named after the founder of Arkia Airlines. While the current airport’s location is convenient for prop planes from Tel Aviv, it causes noise pollution and cuts the city off from its hotel district.

The Ramon Airport was built by the Israel Airport Authority — partly using 160 construction workers from Moldova — at a cost of NIS 1.7 billion ($485 million). That investment will be partly recouped by the sale of the municipal airport’s land for hotels, condominiums, and a convention center.

But why build an international airport for a city of only 60,000 people? “There’s no de-icing,” Moscovitz quipped. Blessed with 330 days of sunshine annually, balmy Eilat makes an ideal winter holiday destination.

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A popular tourist spot in the 1990s, the city foundered after the Second Intifada broke out in 2000. Eilat’s 12,000 hotel rooms also couldn’t compete with the 100,000 budget rooms in the nearby Sinai’s luxurious resorts. But foreign visitors to Eilat have been on an upswing in recent years, Moscovitz explained, thanks to the Open Skies agreement with the European Union that was ratified in 2013.

Boosting airplane arrivals to Eilat — which should reach 55 flights weekly this winter — will be nothing less than a revolution, according to Eilat Hotel Association director Shabi Shai. While only 60,000 foreign tourists arrived in 2015, that number more than doubled to 130,000 in 2016, and then rose to 210,000 last year. In 2017, Israel had a record year for incoming tourism with 3.6 million visitors.

Some 400,000 people, the majority from Russia, are expected in the 2018/19 winter season, Shai gushed. In the past, many of those sun worshippers had preferred Egypt. But on October 31, 2015, a bomb smuggled onboard a charter flight en route to Saint Petersburg from Sharm El Sheikh exploded over Sinai. All 224 passengers and crew members who were on board died.

Eilat’s new international airport is named after aviation heroes Ilan and Asaf Ramon. The former was Israel’s first astronaut; he perished in 2003, when the Colombia space shuttle broke up while reentering Earth’s atmosphere. His son Asaf, also an Israeli Air Force F-16 fighter pilot, was killed six years later in a jet crash.

The striking 32,000 square meter terminal — named in their honor — was designed by Tel Aviv’s Mann Shinar Architects and Moshe Zur Architects. The building will initially handle up to two million passengers annually and the airport’s control tower is equipped with an instrument landing system for the rare day that the airport is fogged in.

A drainage ditch can keep the runway dry, even in a once-in-70-years flash flood. The runway can accommodate the largest commercial jumbo jets. Security concerns dictated the need to build the 3,600-meter-long tarmac. During the 2014 Gaza conflict, known as Operation Protective Edge, a rocket fired from the Hamas-controlled coastal enclave toward Tel Aviv landed in Yehud — five kilometers from Ben-Gurion Airport. As a result, the US Federal Aviation Authority barred American carriers from landing at Ben-Gurion for nearly 48 hours. Foreign airlines followed suit, effectively cutting off the Jewish state.

With Ben-Gurion shuttered, Israel had no backup international airport. Thus Transportation Minister Israel Katz lengthened the Ramon Airport’s runway and increased the apron parking.

Located alongside the Jordanian border, Ramon Airport has special security needs. The facility’s exposed eastern flank is girded with both the airport perimeter fence and a 30-meter-high, 4.5-kilometer-long electronic barrier. The high-tech hurdle features sensors and detection technology to protect incoming and departing planes from shoulder-launched RPGs and other unnamed threats.

For Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, the Ramon Airport promises to revolutionize Israel’s southern city. “Incoming tourism to Eilat is breaking all records, and we are witnessing an extraordinary momentum of airlines opening new direct routes into the city,” he said.

Taking a sharp breath, Shai noted that tourists don’t go to an airport, but a destination. All the carefully prepared tourism plans could unravel if war breaks out, he cautioned. But everyone in Israel, especially in Eilat, is hoping that doesn’t happen.

Gil Zohar is a Jerusalem-based tour guide and journalist, with a keen interest in Israel’s multiple narratives.

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