Report: Gov’t Could Reopen Eilat Airport

The Ramon airport, near Eilat. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

After spending tens of millions of shekels on the new Ramon Airport outside Eilat, the government is considering reopening the old Eilat Airport, as a “compensation” to visitors and hoteliers in Eilat, who fear they will be negatively impacted by the closure of Sdeh Dov Airport in Tel Aviv, Calcalist reported Sunday. Airports Authority officials quoted in the article said that if the airport was reopened, it would take at least a year to accomplish.

Eilat Airport, located in the heart of the tourist district, was closed three months ago with the opening of Ramon Airport, a modern, world-class facility, as opposed to the 1950s-era airfield with a very short runway at Eilat Airport. One of the reasons for the move to Ramon was the fact that modern international carriers were phasing out the small planes that the Eilat Airport could handle.

But the opening of the airport has not brought the passenger boom expected. Figures released last week by the Authority show that the number of visitors flying from the center of the country was down 25% in May compared to that same month a year earlier. The reduction in the number of travelers flying in from the Tel Aviv area has been going on for months; air travel to Eilat from Ben Gurion and Sde Dov Airports was down 10% in the first five months of 2019, compared to the same period a year earlier. In May 2019, 101,505 passengers arrived in Eilat on domestic flights, compared to 134,913 in May 2018. There were also some 300 fewer domestic flights to Eilat in May 2019 compared to a year earlier. In the first five months of this year there were 536,734 passengers on domestic flights to Eilat, compared to 590,000 in January-May 2018.

Eilat hoteliers and merchants place the blame for the loss of tourists squarely on Ramon Airport – which is 40 kilometers out of town and requires travelers to take shuttle buses to get to town. The ride is at least 45 minutes, as opposed to the 5 to 10 minute cab ride required to get to most hotels from the old airport. The fear is that things might get even worse, when Sde Dov – which was convenient for many residents of Tel Aviv and its northern suburbs – closes down next month. Travelers who had been using Sde Dov will now have to fly from Ben Gurion Airport, increasing travel time and expense. Between the two changes, travelers could find themselves sitting on buses or in traffic for an hour and a half to two hours, for a plane ride that lasts about a half hour.

Many Eilat merchants fear that given the hassle many travelers will experience between the two airport changes, they may opt for cheaper alternatives – like Cyprus or the Greek islands. Eilat officials, as well as Tel Aviv officials, have been trying to head off the closure of Sde Dov, but so far to no avail; the airport is set to close July 1st.

The report said that in order to help alleviate the problem, the government is considering reopening the Eilat airport. The airport would handle domestic flights under the plan, while international flights would continue to use Ramon Airport.

Last week, the Mayor of Eilat, Meir Yitzchak Halevi, held a joint press conference with Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai and the heads of Yoseftal Hospital in Eilat decrying the decision to close Sde Dov, saying that the closure would “destroy Eilat tourism.” On Monday, Eilat residents are set to protest outside the Prime Minister’s Residence, demanding that Sdeh Dov remain open.

It’s not clear if either Sdeh Dov or Eilat Airport could remain open or be reopened respectively, as agreements have been made for the development of the sites. In Eilat, the municipality has planned a major development program to build an entertainment and resort complex. At its first stage, the complex will cover about 145 dunams at the southern end of the airport, which is adjacent to the hotel district. The existing terminal building will not be torn down, according to the city’s plan, but will be used as a community and culture center. The city did not reveal what attractions are planned, but did say that they would be in line with the wishes of city residents and visiting groups, and would “substantially enhance the leisure quality of visits to the city.”