TEL AVIV (Mar. 3)
Since its founding 28 years ago this week. Eilat, Israel’s southernmost town, has experienced rise and decline in two areas of development–as a seaport and as an industrial center. It is now well into its third phase–as an international tourist resort and it is there that Eilat’s future seems to lie.
On March 1,1949, a makeshift flag was hoisted on a pole between two mud huts on a strip of empty beach known as Umm Rashrash. The beach is washed by the waters of the Gulf of Eilat formerly called the Gulf of Aqaba, which is the easternmost of the two “rabbit-ear” branches of the Red Sea divided by the Sinai Peninsula. The State of Israel was less than a year old at the time and the new township was to be its ocean gateway to Africa and the Far East.
The day of the founding happened to be the anniversary of the defense of Tel Hai by Joseph Trumpeldor and his followers. But the new settlers had no flag with them so they improvised one from a white bed sheet on which they inscribed blue stripes and a Star of David in ink taken from the pens of all the soldiers present.
The famous “Ink Flag” which has been preserved along with the mud huts. was raised again Tuesday as it has been on this date every year since 1949. But the flag mast is now dwarfed by a skyline of modern hotels fronting the sea and a town of 15,000 whose permanent population is swollen by thousands of tourists from other parts of Israel and abroad.
ENJOYING TOURIST BOOM
Mayor Gad Katz, who officially dedicated an art institute and Eilat’s second high school Tuesday, predicted a great rise in tourism. He called on Jordan to open its borders so that both Eilat and the neighboring Jordanian town of Aqaba, could benefit from a two-way flow of tourists.
Eilat, which enjoys a subtropical climate and sunshine virtually every day of the year, was always a tourist attraction. But the emphasis on tourism has increased since hopes for further growth of its seaport had to be abandoned.
The harbor is still busy. but not to the extent that it was in the 1950s and 1960s. Many Asian and African countries broke diplomatic and trade relations with Israel after the Yom Kippur War which led to a decline in cargoes discharged at the port. The most severe blow, however. was the reopening of the Suez Canal two years ago and the permission granted by Egypt to allow Israel-bound cargoes ( though not Israel-flag ships ) to use the waterway.
Until then, Eilat had been the southern termin us of the “land-bridge” over which cargoes from the east were transported by truck for distribution elsewhere in Israel or to Haifa or Ashdod for transshipment abroad. It is still the terminus of the Eilat-Ashkelon oil pipeline through which oil from the Persian Gulf is sent to tankers on the Mediterranean, But its development as a major harbor is not foreseen.
When the port began to decline. Eilat placed its hopes in industrial development centered around the Timna copper mines in the Negev to the north. But when world copper prices plunged last year. the mines were shut down and many of the diggers and engineers departed.
On the day this week when Eilat was marking its 28th anniversary, the temperature was in the 90s, compared to 68 in Tel Aviv. The warmth has a special attraction for tourists from the Scandinavian countries and Western Europe. They occupy many of Eilat’s 1877 hotel rooms. Six charter flights a week land at Eilat from Scandinavia, West Germany and England and scores of tourists who land at Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv come to Eilat each week.
THE ATTRACTIONS IN EILAT
What they find, among other things, is a flourishing skin-diving center, In fact, an international diving symposium on human and animal behavior in water was held in Eilat last week, attended by some 200 participants headed by Joe Mcinnes of Canada who holds the title “Diver of the Year.”
The Moriah Hotel chain maintains an underwater observatory where tourists can view hundreds of species of tropical fish and other marine life in its natural settings, In addition to beaches and night clubs, Eilat offers camel rides and tours of the nearby desert canyons. Eilat has been designated the official tourist capital of the Negev. The Government Tourist Office has shifted its Negev headquarters from Beersheba to Eilat in recognition of that position.