Build it and they will come?
Ramon International Airport in Eilat will begin service on Oct. 28. (photo by Gil Zohar)
With Ramon International Airport beginning service on Oct. 28, officials hope that the state-of-the-art facility will boost tourism to the once-sleepy Red Sea resort of Eilat. But will a gleaming airport bring the crowds?
Perched on the 50-metre-high control tower during a March 19 media tour of the site, 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 off the city from its hotel district.
The new airport is named after aviation heroes Ilan and Asaf Ramon. The former was Israel’s first astronaut; he perished in 2003, when the Columbia Space Shuttle exploded 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 Israel Airport Authority hired 160 construction workers from Moldova to build Ramon Airport. The total cost of the facility will be NIS 1.7 billion (more than $614 million Cdn). That investment will be partly recouped by the sale of the municipal airport’s land for hotels, condominiums and a convention centre.
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, Eilat makes an ideal winter holiday destination.
A popular tourist stop in the 1990s, the city foundered after the Second Intifada broke out in 2000. As well, Eilat’s 12,000 hotel rooms 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 as a whole had a record year for tourism, with 3.6 million visitors.
Some 400,000 people, the majority from Russia, are expected in the 2018/19 winter season, said Shai. In the past, many of those sun worshippers had preferred Egypt. But, on Oct. 31, 2015, a bomb smuggled onboard a charter en route to Saint Petersburg from Sharm El Sheikh exploded over Sinai. All 224 passengers and crew were killed.
The 32,000-square-metre Ramon Airport terminal 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 the airport is fogged in. A drainage ditch will keep the runway dry, even in a once-in-70-years flash flood.
Because of security concerns, the 3,600-metre-long tarmac will accommodate the largest commercial jumbo jets. During the 2014 Gaza conflict, known as Operation Protective Edge, a rocket fired from a Hamas-controlled coastal enclave toward Tel Aviv landed in Yehud, five kilometres from Ben-Gurion Airport. In response, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration barred American carriers from landing at Ben-Gurion for nearly 48 hours. When foreign airlines followed suit, the Jewish state was effectively cut off because, with Ben-Gurion shuttered, Israel had no other airport with international capacity. To prevent this situation from happening again, Transportation Minister Israel Katz had Ramon Airport’s runway lengthened and increased the apron parking.
Located alongside the Jordanian border, Ramon Airport has special security needs of its own. The facility’s exposed eastern flank is girded with both a fence and a 30-metre-high, 4.5-kilometre-long electronic barrier. The high-tech hurdle features sensors and detection technology to protect incoming and departing planes from shoulder-launched RPGs (rocket-propelled grenades) and other unnamed threats.
For Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, Ramon Airport will support the continued revitalization of 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.
Shai, however, acknowledged that tourists don’t go to an airport but a destination. All the carefully prepared tourism plans could unravel if war broke out, he cautioned. But everyone in Israel, including in Eilat, is hoping that doesn’t happen.
Gil Zohar is a journalist based in Jerusalem.