MOSCOW (JTA) — With the peak season only weeks away, the Russian travel agents who perished or were injured when their bus careened off a mountain road near Eilat had gone to Israel to sample some of the available tours.
They were supposed to act as ambassadors, opening up Eilat, a southern resort city, to an increased flow of Russian tourism. This is the first holiday travel season — Russia takes a two-week break after New Year’s — since Russia and Israel dropped visa requirements for tourists at the end of September.
Most were female representatives of tourist agencies in St. Petersburg. Of the 49 people listed on the passenger manifest and now deceased or recovering from Tuesday afternoon’s crash, only four are men.
Twenty-four Russians and one Israeli died, and more than 30 people were injured, when the charter bus in which they were riding tried to pass another vehicle at high speed on the winding mountain road near Eilat. The vehicle swerved, lost control and tumbled down a hillside, scattering victims and detritus across the Negev Desert.
The crash, the deadliest in Israel’s history, has left a tragic blemish on the burgeoning tourist industry between Russia and Israel. But the quick action of Israeli first responders was seen in Russia as a testament to Israel’s preparedness, and Russian travel to Israel is expected to continue its increase unabated, according to Russian tour agents and officials. Israel has been the destination for thousands of Russian package tours in recent years.
Just hours after landing, the bus carrying the travel agents spilled over the 45-foot drop, bringing a catastrophic end to what Israeli Transportation Minister Shaul Mofaz described as a game of cat-and-mouse between two bus drivers. Witnesses have backed up Mofaz’s claims, but police have not completed an investigation into the accident.
The crash left a line of Russian tour agents in body bags on the sandy hill and dozens more in the hospital.
Nadezhda Komina, an accident victim, appeared in an Eilat hospital bruised and bandaged with a swollen eye.
"I remember that we were going, and the driver wanted to pass. We saw the dropoff and we all screamed," she told the Russian NTV network.
Late Tuesday night, two special flights organized by the Russian Emergency Situations Ministry traveled to Israel from St. Petersburg. One brought relatives of the victims, another carried medical personnel and supplies.
Russian television showed victims’ relatives speeding through Ben Gurion Airport near Tel Aviv on their way to meet with the victims.
Elena Potemkin, another victim, said her husband was on the way to see her from the airport. As she spoke, Potemkin stared straight ahead in her hospital bed, her face bruised a beet red.
"They say I’m better off than others," she said on Russian television. "I’m lucky that everything turned out as it did for me."
Since the end of the Soviet Union, and even more so in the revived economy of the past decade, Russians have become voracious travelers. The dropping of the visa requirements put Israel on an equal footing with other popular Russian vacation destinations such as Egypt, Turkey and Cyprus.
Many Russians rely on package deals with charter flights and buses set up by travel companies that are prolific in major cities.
Since the visa-free regime began a little more than two months ago, travel to Israel has increased threefold, Russia’s ambassador to Israel, Pyotr Stegny, said last month.
There were disputes about how to handle the increased load of charter flights necessary to accommodate all the tourists. Israeli airlines brokered a deal that would allow them to run more flights from Russia’s major airports to meet the demand, according to business reports last month.
Just last month, 8,148 Russian tourists flew to Eilat’s small aiport on 58 direct flights, more than twice as many tourists as in November of last year, Ha’aretz reported Wednesday. While the vast majority of international flights to Israel go through Ben Gurion Airport, a small proportion go through the airport in Eilat and one in the Negev, at Ovda Aiport.
Overall, Eilat is seeking to establish itself as an even more prominent destination for those tourists. This year, some 91,000 passengers have flown through Eilat and Ovda airports on nearly 1,500 international flights, according to a report by the Israel Airport Authority. That’s a 25 percent increase over the year before.
Russian tour operators say they don’t think the accident will lower the interest in travel to Israel, a place many Russians had avoided because of the visa restrictions. The Russian tourist season lasts from late December to late February, as Russians escape the frigid Siberian winter and head for the beaches, many in the Middle East.
"This is a single tragedy," said Ksenia Voronezhna, a spokesman for an online clearinghouse that handles Russian travel to Israel. "I don’t think there will be any slowdown at all. If anything, Russians have watched with sympathy and been impressed at how quick ambulances showed up to help the victims."