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Aqaba’s Tourist Expansion Leaves Sour Taste in Israel

Plans by Israeli airliner to begin flights to Jordanian resort town have sparked internal friction in Israel.

Plans by Israeli airliner Arkia to start flying to the Jordanian Red Sea resort town of Aqaba have left the mayor of neighboring Eilat fuming.

Meir Yitzhak HaLevy, the mayor of the Israeli Red Sea resort town of Eilat, has threatened to take action against Arkia should the carrier follow through with plans to setup regular flights to Aqaba.

“I see fit to bring to your attention the content of this meeting, in the hope that Arkia’s management will consider its steps and continue to operate for the good of the development and prosperity of Eilat,” HaLevy wrote in a letter to Arkia published in the Israeli daily Globes.

HaLevy claims his remarks were taken out of context.

“When the flights start we will see if we will lose tourists and then we will see what to do” he told The Media Line. “I’m very much in favor of boosting tourism in Aqaba and Taba [Egypt]. It would be a great solution to the geopolitical political problems, but I want Eilat to be in a leading position.”

The Eilat-Tel Aviv route is the mainstay to Arkia’s operations, and the decision to allow the airline to fly to Aqaba was allegedly made by the Israeli Tourism Ministry as compensation for allowing Israel’s largest airline El Al to begin flying to Eilat.

HaLevy, the Eilat mayor, is understood to have been one of the main proponents of the decision to allow El Al to fly to Eilat.  

The Arkia flights to Aqaba will operate on Monday and Friday from Israel’s Ben-Gurion International Airport outside Tel Aviv and a smaller airport in the northern city of Haifa.   

Some analysts warn that allowing flights to Eilat by El Al, a much larger carrier than Arkia, will lead to price dumping and El Al forcing its smaller rivals out of business.

“Eilat is very important to Arkia, its our heart, its our best location and we fly there all year around,” Arkia CEO Gadi Tepper told The Media Line. “We don’t want to fight with Eilat but we feel uncomfortable about Arkia being taken for granted by some hoteliers in Eilat.”

“We chose Aqaba not to harm Eilat but because we need to fly our planes and to make money,” he said. “We are looking to Aqaba because there will be El Al flights to Eilat and we don’t think the market will increase.”  
“I would be more than happy to take part in any committee meeting [with the Eilat municipality],” he said.  

The border between Aqaba and Eilat, know on the Jordanian side as the Wadi Araba crossing and on the Israeli side as the Yitzhak Rabin crossing, is the main point of entry for tourists of any nationality travelling to Jordan to visit Petra, the ancient desert city famous for it’s temples carved out of red mountains.

At the moment, tours from Israel to Petra must go to Eilat by air or land and then cross the border to Aqaba, an inconvenience which the new Arkia route will allow tourists to skip.

Judging from the reaction of tour operators in Aqaba, the new route is likely to be a success.

Hussein Abbadi, owner and general manager of Al-Jawad Tours in Aqaba, told The Media Line that he was excited by new of the planned route.

“We have many clients who fly to Eilat and then cross over the border,” he said. “This is very good news.”

“Meanwhile I have very good traffic of day tours from Aqaba for people that fly to Tel Aviv for a day trip in Jerusalem,” Abbabi said, pointing out that the flights should be coordinated to allow tourists to do one day trips in both directions.

In 2007 Israel’s parliament approved a plan by then-vice Prime Minister Shimon Peres to develop several large-scale cooperation projects between Israel and Jordan, including the so called Red Dead Canal, which aims to lead water from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea through a pipeline.

The plan also includes the establishment of a joint Israeli-Jordanian international airport, to be constructed outside Aqaba, which would have a joint landing strip but two separate terminals.