Israel opens new airport to boost Eilat tourism, provide wartime back-up

TIMNA, Israel (Reuters) - Israel opened a new international airport outside its Red Sea resort of Eilat on Monday, hoping to boost winter tourism from Europeans and provide an alternative for times of conflict to its main gateway in Tel Aviv.

Abutting the Jordanian border some 19 km (12 miles) north of Eilat, Ilan and Asaf Ramon Airport cost $500 million and will replace the city’s cramped municipal airport as well as Ovda, an Israeli desert airbase that also accommodates civilian traffic.

Named after an Israeli astronaut lost in the 2003 space shuttle disaster and his eldest son, who died in a 2009 air force accident, the single-runway Ramon is designed for wide-body planes and an annual capacity of 2.5 million passengers.

“Planes will come here from the south, from the east and from the north. This is a huge change in Israel’s accessibility and its international standing,” Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said at the airport’s opening ceremony.

Ramon is designed to take any planes re-routed from Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv - a lesson of the 2014 Gaza war, when foreign carriers briefly halted flights there because of Palestinian rocket fire. Israel worries that Ben Gurion could also be targeted by Lebanese Hezbollah rocketeers.

The new airport “will provide us with further and important strategic capabilities - at normal times and, as much as is needed, during times of emergency,” Netanyahu said.

Ramon is 200 km (124 miles) from Gaza and 370 km (230 miles) from Lebanon. It is at a safe remove from Islamist insurgents in the Egyptian Sinai and has a security fence billed as a precaution against shoulder-fired missile attacks from Jordan.

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Red Sea neighbor Jordan and Egypt may also benefit from transit tourists landing there, Israeli officials say.

“It (Ramon) is going to be a regional airport and if some of our tourists are going to Aqaba and Taba, that’s great,” Chanan Moskowitz, head of Eilat-area airport operations, told Reuters, referring to the Jordan and Egyptian border terminals.

“It means that the area is quiet.”

Eilat has seen a big revival in tourism since 2015, when Israel offered airlines 60 euros ($70) per passenger brought on direct flights from abroad to Ovda. Taxes and fees were also scrapped for three years to lower fares.

That lured airlines such as Ryanair - which has a 50 percent market share to Eilat for its winter flights - and Wizzair, which is next at 18 percent. Lufthansa began nonstop flights to Eilat in October.

Moskowitz said foreign tourism to Eilat doubled over the last two years. Tourism from Russia, Hungary, Poland and Lithuania, via Ovda airport, has been especially brisk.

Hotels, however, have not benefited as much as they had hoped, with tourists arriving on budget flights opting to rent rooms through cheaper services such as AirBnb: “More people are staying outside the hotels than in the hotels,” said Shabtai Shai, head of the Eilat Hotels Association.

Editing by Dan Williams and Peter Graff