Providing recuperation for medical teams; conducting training camps for athletes; discounted prices for domestic tourism; attracting foreign tourism; Meir Yitzhak Halevi, mayor of Eilat, has many ideas for the city's rehabilitation, which was ranked this week by the Employment Authority as the city in Israel with the highest number of unemployed residents, with a total of 43.9 percent reported unemployed. "The city will overcome this crisis, with intelligence and hard work," he said in an interview with Davar, in preparation for a discussion on the city's situation to be had in the upcoming Knesset's Finance Committee.
Halevi remains optimistic despite the severe blows that Eilat has suffered – from the sudden halt of tourism due to the coronavirus outbreak, to the winter storm that caused the destruction of the boardwalk and the beach, accumulating damages of around NIS 100 million (which insurance is only covering half for now), and the closing of Sde Dov Airport in Tel Aviv last year.
"Let's start with the fact that the city of Eilat, and its entire economy, rests on the tourism industry," he says. "When this industry collapses, then everything around it collapses as well. The tourism constitutes 80 percent of the direct and indirect employment in the city. This is the reason why we are leading today in the level of unemployment in Israel. Putting the official statistic to one side, 44 percent unemployment, or 70 percent unemployment – my estimation is that three out of every four people in the city are left without work."
These are statistics that can dismantle a community.
"It is a massive blow for a city like Eilat. There are thousands of families in which two spouses are currently unemployed. Tourism is not a wage-rich industry like hi-tech or finance. At the end of the day, the wages are not high, and the social safety net is inadequate. People here live from month to month without fast income. But there is also an amazing community here that is really supportive which fosters a culture of mutual aid.
"By the way, I spoke with Meir Spiegeler (Director General of the National Insurance Institute – Bituach Leumi), and he said to me: 'If you have a situation where two regular wage-earners are now sitting at home, it is possible to give them a special grant. We have to pass a regulation that will exclude Eilat and mandate [the grant] and we are working on it.'"
This is not the first time the city is dealing with a crisis in tourism. In every military operation, the tourists disappear. How is it different this time?
"It's true that tourism is a volatile industry. When there were security or geopolitical complications here, it affected the number of tourists and it wasn't easy, but you knew that a week or a month would pass and the story would be over. The systems didn't all fall apart. In this current reality, the systems are all frozen and it's hard to know when things will change."
There is talk today that airlines and the tourism industries will be the last to be rehabilitated. The forecasts are that the damage will continue deep into 2021.
"It's obvious that this event will not end soon and its effects will be felt for a very long time. We will need both assistance from the state and patience on our end, but I don't accept the assertion that I heard in one of the discussions with Finance Ministry officials, that on the train exiting this crisis, the tourism industry will be the last car. It doesn't have to be like that."
"There are almost no sick people in the city. There are three sick people and they are in home quarantine. We dropped from 417 quarantined people, who turned out to be not sick, to just 33 quarantined people. Accordingly, if we want, it is possible to create a sterile environment that allows controlled tourism. There is also no reason not to allow internal employment. That the barber and pedicurist will return to work. I set a goal for us that on May 1 we will advance to the next phase. Two weeks from Passover we can declare Eilat as sterile area, and begin to rehabilitate the economy of the city."
“Providing recuperation for medical teams"
Halevi has many ideas on how to "unstuck the goose that lays golden eggs from the mud," in his words. One such idea, of which the Minister of Culture and Sports, Miri Regev, is also in support, is to finish the season’s games in the football and basketball leagues, in the city.
"I suggested that Eilat host training camps for all the sport leagues," says Halevi. "When it comes to individual sport it's also pretty simple. Tennis, boating, windsurfing. There is no reason not to engineer a plan to enable it. Another idea is to bring in medical teams to recuperate in the city. There is no reason for us not to host the medical teams who need rest. Mifal HaPais [the national lottery of Israel] is willing to help in this matter. Not full funding, but the government will give a little, and it can be done."
"I asked the Tourism Ministry to support a plan to encourage domestic tourism, which we can start implementing already in the coming months. People who have been confined in their homes for the past two months need it. The hotels will offer affordable prices, the state will assist, and people will get the vacation that they so desperately need at a discounted price."
"We also have to take care of foreign tourism. Once the restrictions will be removed, there are also people there who will be looking for a vacation. We need to be prepared to receive them first, to encourage the airlines to return. If until now we put with the Tourism Ministry $60 air ticket subsidization of each tourist's ticket in the low-cost companies that fly to 'Ramon' [air port outside Eilat], we should increase that to $100."
"There's no power in the world that can stop the momentum of development"
Halevi is experienced with fighting for the government’s help with the city. It has not been even a year since he lost the battle over the closing Sde Dov Airport, but he manages to focus on what he has achieved. "After they decided to close Sde Dov, in August 2019, the government made a decision to support Eilat with 800 million shekels over four years. A very important decision. Nine months have passed and the airport there is empty, and they could have continued to fly. But I focus on the positive. The government said then that tens of billions of shekels can be taken from Sde Dov and put into residential real estate, so that is also a resource from which to fund the rehabilitation needed for Eilat."
Do you believe that the government will reach into its pockets and help the city?
"Now everyone understands the special situation of Eilat. We have received the appropriate level of attention. This city will overcome this crisis, with intelligence and hard work. No one will allow the demise of a goose that lays golden eggs. It is a very strong city that also made a huge profit for the State of Israel over the years. The government, from its end, has also invested hundreds of millions here. Nobody wants to see their investments go down the drain. Just recently they invested 2 billion shekels on an airport here. We have over a hundred infrastructure projects – new neighborhoods, a water park, a new coastal strip, a convention center. Development here has gathered momentum. There is no power in the world that can stop this."
Brought to press with the help of the International Relations Division of the Histadrut