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A seaside town shelters thousands of Israeli evacuees, but struggles without tourists

A paddle boarder heads out into the water in Eilat, Israel. Normally, Eilat's beaches and hotels would be busy with tourists.
Ayman Oghanna for NPR
A paddle boarder heads out into the water in Eilat, Israel. Normally, Eilat's beaches and hotels would be busy with tourists.

EILAT, Israel — With the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Aqaba and stark peaks of the surrounding mountains, Eilat has long been a major driver of Israel's tourism economy.

The thriving tourist trade in this town on the far southern tip of the country evaporated in October after Hamas militants attacked Israel, killing about 1,200 people, according to the Israeli government. Vacationers fled and many airlines canceled or suspended flights to Israel, although some international carriers are resuming flights to the country.

While much of Gaza is in ruins and the West Bank economy has been battered, Israel has also taken an economic hit from its war against Hamas, especially in its travel industry.

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Soon after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack, the Israeli government evacuated many residents living near the borders of Gaza and Lebanon. Some 60,000 Israeli evacuees went to Eilat, doubling the city's population, according to a statement from the Eilat municipality. Instead of tourists, the area's hotels are now filled with Israelis displaced by war. Their housing, food and children's education is largely underwritten by the Israeli government.

An empty beach in Eilat, Israel. The war has transformed this once-booming southern Israeli tourist destination into a deserted resort of empty shops and beach fronts. Instead of tourists, the hotels shelter Israelis who were evacuated after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
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Ayman Oghanna for NPR
An empty beach in Eilat, Israel. The war has transformed this once-booming southern Israeli tourist destination into a deserted resort of empty shops and beach fronts. Instead of tourists, the hotels shelter Israelis who were evacuated after the Oct. 7 Hamas attack.

Michal Rahav is one of those displaced and taking refuge in Eilat. She comes from Kibbutz Nirim, a tiny community in southern Israel about a mile east of the Gaza border. Five people in Nirim were killed, and another five taken hostage by Hamas on Oct. 7, according to residents.

Rahav says militants stormed her family's house. Her husband shot one dead, then handed her an M16 rifle.

"He gave me the gun and we were looking at each other and we said, 'We're fighting to the last bullet that we have,' " she says. She and her husband tattooed the date of the attack and the words "Until the last bullet" in Hebrew on their forearms.

Rahav's house was destroyed but the family survived. They arrived in Eilat with nothing. Like many others, they relied on donations from people in the city. Rahav, a demand and supply planner for a large food company, says Eilat was like a cocoon which helped them deal with the emotional aftermath of the Hamas attack.

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"You know, Eilat, I very much love the city, but it's remote from everything," she says. "And a lot of us ... work two, three hours from here."

Michal Rahav survived a Hamas attack on her home in Kibbutz Nirim, near the Gaza Strip, on Oct. 7 and was relocated to Eilat.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
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Ayman Oghanna for NPR
Michal Rahav survived a Hamas attack on her home in Kibbutz Nirim, near the Gaza Strip, on Oct. 7 and was relocated to Eilat.
Michal Rahav and her husband tattooed "Until the last bullet," in Hebrew, on their arms following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. Militants stormed their house, her husband shot one dead and handed her a rifle telling her to fight until the last bullet. She was relocated with her family to Eilat.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
/
Ayman Oghanna for NPR
Michal Rahav and her husband tattooed "Until the last bullet," in Hebrew, on their arms following the Oct. 7 Hamas attack. Militants stormed their house, her husband shot one dead and handed her a rifle telling her to fight until the last bullet. She was relocated with her family to Eilat.

While evacuees like Rahav adjusted to their temporary homes, business owners in Eilat adjusted to a new reality: no tourists mean no business. The once-busy tree-lined boulevards and beaches are deserted, and restaurants and shops are empty.

For three decades, Shmulik Zino has been showing mostly European tourists the sights around Eilat from aboard his 30-foot wood-trimmed tourist boat.

"We're doing cruises with lunch and then also for diving," he says. "Normally we cruise around the border Jordan, Egypt, Dolphin Reef."

Nowadays, Zino spends his days doing maintenance on his boat and tending to his dockside flowerbed bursting with color. He says he's taking a real financial hit because there have been no tourists since October, and he isn't sure things will change anytime soon.

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"We don't know what's going to be in the future," he says. "We don't see the end of this war."

Shmulik Zino on his 30-foot wood-trimmed tour boat. Normally Zino would be taking tourists for boat cruises on the Gulf of Aqaba. These days he tends to his herb and flower garden.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
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Ayman Oghanna for NPR
Shmulik Zino on his 30-foot wood-trimmed tour boat. Normally Zino would be taking tourists for boat cruises on the Gulf of Aqaba. These days he tends to his herb and flower garden.

Not far away, Samy Azulay gazes wearily out at a few children playing in the Gulf of Aqaba and shakes his head. He owns Eilat Water Sports, which rents out paddleboards and the like. He's had to lay off 15 people because business is so bad.

Azulay says many of the evacuees don't have money for water sports, and adds that tourists don't want to come to a depressing place for vacation.

"The problem is ... they don't like to stay because the atmosphere is not good. People are suffering. People are in a bad situation," he says. "Who wants to come to make a holiday when there are only people who are very sad here?"

The Israeli government last month announced an aid package for Eilat, including 50 million shekels (about $13 million) to the municipality to help businesses, Israeli business news site The Marker reported.

Samy Azulay, owner of Eilat Water Sports, says he doesn't think tourists would want to come to a sad place for vacation.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
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Ayman Oghanna for NPR
Samy Azulay, owner of Eilat Water Sports, says he doesn't think tourists would want to come to a sad place for vacation.

Itamar Elitzur, CEO of Eilat Hotel Association, says he wants part of the funds to be used for advertising to let Israelis know there are bargains on flights and hotel rooms.

"The prices now in Eilat are the lowest there ever was," he says, like going back to the 1990s.

Elitzur says the advertising campaign will encourage Israelis to just come "take the air" — in other words, relax, breathe deeply. He says they need to avoid the word "vacation" because Israelis don't want to feel guilty about enjoying themselves during the war in Gaza.

Most Israelis know someone in the war, whether it's a neighbor, friend or relative, he says. "And I can't say to them, 'I'm going to vacation.'"

Elitzur says more rooms are coming available as displaced Israelis in Eilat go home or find new places to live. About half of those who arrived in October have moved new temporary homes.

The Finance Ministry and Eilat municipality confirmed the subsidies and other support for Israeli evacuees but would not provide further comment for this story.

Last month, Israeli Tourism Minister Haim Katz said tourist numbers had been soaring until the Oct. 7 attack, and he's hopeful the industry will bounce back to help jump-start the postwar economy, according to The Jerusalem Post.

But the war is rounding the four-month mark and it's unclear how long it will last.

Rahav says all those from her little kibbutz will soon be moving to the city of Beer Sheva, which is closer to home than Eilat.

"We have to our community to preserve," she says. "We have to continue moving."

A shut hotel gate in Eilat, Israel. Some 60,000 Israeli evacuees went to the town on Israel's southernmost tip after the Hamas attack. Now the tourism sector is hoping tourists come back.
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
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Ayman Oghanna for NPR
A shut hotel gate in Eilat, Israel. Some 60,000 Israeli evacuees went to the town on Israel's southernmost tip after the Hamas attack. Now the tourism sector is hoping tourists come back.

Anat Marla, also from Kibbutz Nirim, will go with the rest of her community to Beer Sheva. She's looking forward to leaving the hotel in Eilat.

"I'm just waiting, you know, to be able — I can't believe I'm saying it — but cook, clean, wash the dishes," she says with a laugh.

But Marla says many other displaced Israelis in Eilat aren't ready to leave, especially those from northern Israel, where there are nearly daily skirmishes between Israel's military and Hezbollah militants along the border with Lebanon.

"A lot of the people are just saying ... 'We have no plan on going back until we're just like, security is restored and ... the goals of the fighting have been accomplished,' " Marla says.

That means thousands of displaced Israelis could remain in Eilat for a long time.

A warship approaches Eilat, Israel, on Jan. 8. When asked about the purpose of the vessel, the Israeli military told NPR, "We do not comment on the location of our forces."
/ Ayman Oghanna for NPR
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Ayman Oghanna for NPR
A warship approaches Eilat, Israel, on Jan. 8. When asked about the purpose of the vessel, the Israeli military told NPR, "We do not comment on the location of our forces."


Eve Guterman contributed reporting in Eilat, Israel.

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Jackie Northam
Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.