New Air­port Ex­pected to be a Game-Changer for South­ern Is­rael’s Tourism Scene

The Jewish Voice - - TRAVEL - By: Judy Lash Balint

Driv­ing into Timna Park, a 15,000-acre na­ture re­serve ex­panse bounded by ma­jes­tic, red-tinged craggy hills, it’s easy to feel the awe and seren­ity that’s the hall­mark of any desert ex­pe­ri­ence. Drive 20 min­utes south, and you’ll ar­rive at the brash Red Sea re­sort town of Ei­lat, where wa­ter sports and shop­ping are the or­der of the day.

Timna is less than 10 min­utes by car from the new Ilan and As­saf Ra­mon Air­port that’s sched­uled to open next spring near Ei­lat, in what is ex­pected to be a game-changer for south­ern Is­rael’s tourism scene.

RyanAir, Monarch, Fin­nair, SAS and Wizz are among the air­lines signed up to use the new air­port, whose tower, run­ways and ter­mi­nals lie in the Arava Val­ley, in sight of the scenic Edom Moun­tains.

Va­ri­ety is the name of the game to­day for tourism de­vel­op­ment in Is­rael’s south. Tourism of­fi­cials are pre­dict­ing the open­ing of the ul­tra-mod­ern Ra­mon Air­port in 2018 will bring tens of thou­sands of vis­i­tors not just to Ei­lat, but to places like Timna and the var­ied desert at­trac­tions in the area.

Once Ra­mon Air­port opens, south­ern Is­rael’s ex­ist­ing Ei­lat and Ovda air­ports will be closed, and at full ca­pac­ity, Ra­mon Air­port will be able to ac­com­mo­date up to 2 mil­lion pas­sen­gers per year.

Iris Danieli, the Is­raeli Tourism Min­istry’s tourism man­ager for the Arava re­gion and a mem­ber of Kib­butz Yot­vata, is hop­ing that many of the tourists ar­riv­ing on the ex­pected 50 weekly flights ar­riv­ing from Europe, the U.K. and sev­eral des­ti­na­tions in Eastern Europe will take the op­por­tu­nity to dis­cover places like Timna Park as well as some of the many other des­ti­na­tions and ac­tiv­i­ties in the area.

“The Arava Val­ley is an in­cred­i­ble place to see a unique eco-sys­tem, bike and hike through ter­rain that’s his­toric and beau­ti­ful, and meet the spe­cial kind of peo­ple who choose to live in the desert,” Danieli says.

Half­way be­tween Ei­lat and Mitzpe Ra­mon on Route 40 lies Kib­butz Neot Se­madar, where in­quis­i­tive tourists will find in­side the or­nate white gates a lush oa­sis and tran­quil guest houses, along with an in­no­va­tive arts cen­ter, a bou­tique win­ery, a goat farm and hik­ing trails. It’s not your typ­i­cal kib­butz, but the 200 peo­ple who live there are ea­ger to wel­come vis­i­tors to sam­ple their life­style and their prod­ucts, all based on eco­log­i­cal prin­ci­ples. There’s an op­por­tu­nity to work in the veg­etable gar­den, pack­age spices or weave for those stay­ing for a few days or longer in the sim­ple ac­com­mo­da­tions, as well as a 1.5hour tour if you’re just pass­ing through the area.

For most of the year, the desert cli­mate is per­fect for bik­ing and hik­ing ex­plo­rations, and the in­fra­struc­ture in the Arava and the Negev is so­phis­ti­cated. Rental bikes are avail­able at Timna Park as well as at Kib­butz Ke­tura and Kib­butz Ya­hel, which are both on Is­rael’s na­tional bike trail and of­fer overnight ac­com­mo­da­tion, pro­vid­ing the chance to get a taste of kib­butz life.

Cy­cling en­thu­si­asts praise the 185-mile south­ern seg­ment of the bike trail that links Ei­lat with Mitzpe Ra­mon, and is de­signed for in­ter­me­di­ate-level bik­ers look­ing for var­ied scenery. Se­ri­ous hik­ers can set out from just south of Ei­lat on por­tions of the well-marked Is­rael Na­tional Trail, or tackle the Ei­lat Moun­tains Na­ture Re­serve—the rock­i­est park in Is­rael, where on a clear day, you can see into Egypt, Jor­dan and Saudi Ara­bia.

The cozy Ibex Ho­tel in Mitzpe Ra­mon is owned by a bik­ing cou­ple, and caters to the grow­ing num­ber of bik­ers who de­scend on the area dur­ing the win­ter sea­son, when the cli­mate isn’t con­ducive to bik­ing in Europe and many parts of North Amer­ica.

“It’s you and na­ture out here,” says Ibex Ho­tel owner Aviva Schreiber, de­scrib­ing the en­vi­ron­ment in the town on the edge of Is­rael’s largest crater. Schreiber and her hus­band, Moshe, are try­ing to cre­ate an “après-ski” type of at­mos­phere for the bik­ers who gather at their venue. Lo­cated nearby are a cou­ple of pubs and an up­scale

Timna is less than 10 min­utes by car from the new Ilan and As­saf Ra­mon Air­port that’s sched­uled to open next spring near Ei­lat, in what is ex­pected to be a game-changer for south­ern Is­rael’s tourism scene.

French restau­rant where Is­raelis tak­ing week­end trips min­gle with Euro­peans and Scan­di­na­vians who have dis­cov­ered the Is­raeli desert.

Fi­nan­cial in­cen­tives of­fered by the Is­raeli gov­ern­ment to tour op­er­a­tors, and the 2013 Open Skies agree­ment that dereg­u­lated air traf­fic be­tween Is­rael and Europe, ac­count for the re­cent rise in the num­ber of tourists to Ei­lat. Sev­eral low­cost air­lines look­ing for new Mid­dle East “sun and sand” des­ti­na­tions fol­low­ing un­rest in Egypt’s Si­nai Penin­sula were en­ticed to fly their cus­tomers to Ei­lat, con­tribut­ing to the more than 77,000 pas­sen­gers ar­riv­ing dur­ing the 2016 win­ter sea­son. Shab­tai Shai, head of the Ei­lat Ho­tel As­so­ci­a­tion, is con­fi­dent 250,000 tourists will fly in dur­ing the up­com­ing 2017-2018 win­ter sea­son.

Cur­rently, most Amer­i­can vis­i­tors ar­rive in Ei­lat through a 35-minute in­ter­nal Is­raeli flight from Ben Gu­rion Air­port, or by bus from the cen­ter of the coun­try. Fol­low­ing a 10-per­cent in­crease in vis­i­tors from the U.S. to Ei­lat dur­ing the past two years, Uri Sharon, di­rec­tor of Is­rael’s Gov­ern­ment Tourist Of­fice in Ger­many, ex­pects the Is­raeli Tourism Min­istry’s mar­ket­ing ef­forts to high­light “unique, un­ex­pected, ‘wow fac­tor’” sites in or­der to at­tract even more Amer­i­cans to the area in the com­ing year.

Half­way be­tween Ei­lat and Mitzpe Ra­mon on Route 40 lies Kib­butz Neot Se­madar, where in­quis­i­tive tourists will find in­side the or­nate white gates a lush oa­sis and tran­quil guest houses, along with an in­no­va­tive arts cen­ter, (pic­tured above) a bou­tique win­ery, a goat farm and hik­ing trails

Is­rael’s new Ilan and As­saf Ra­mon Air­port, which will open in 2018. Credit: Judy Lash Balint

A hik­ing trail in south­ern Is­rael’s Timna Park. Credit: Judy Lash Balint.

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