The stark Negev Desert, filled with craters, multicolored sand and clusters of Bedouin villages, comprises more than half of Israel’s total mass. And thanks to a bevy of new promotions on desert lodging and tourism, savvy travelers looking to stretch their shekels in the Holy Land will find the Negev an affordable alternative to Jerusalem or Tel Aviv.
Looking to give incoming tourism numbers a jolt following the 2014 Gaza War, the Israeli Ministry of Tourism last winter announced the Eilat Directive, a financial incentive of 45 euros per passenger to airlines willing to fly into Israel’s Ovdah Airport, located in the Negev not far from the southern resort city for which the directive is named. A number of low-cost aviation companies and tour operators — from nations including Russia, Poland, France, Hungary and Slovakia — took advantage of the directive, and the result is a slew of new cut-rate fare options for travelers flying into Israel from Europe.
The budget airline Ryanair has added 10 new Eilat routes to its roster, while Hungarian low-cost carrier Wizz Air has tacked on four extra flights per week. Sweden’s low-cost carrier SAS, which pulled out of Israeli airspace entirely in March 2016, has been lured back thanks to the incentives, and will operate a weekly direct flight from Stockholm into Eilat starting this winter.
So high is the demand, in fact, that a new airport is being built to handle the traffic. The days are limited for Ovdah, which was built in 1980 to handle military aircraft flying into Israel’s south. Early next spring, the airport will be replaced by a gleaming new air transport hub just outside of Eilat, called the Ilan and Assaf Ramon Airport. Ramon, which sits in the majestic red-sand Timna Park, will handle up to 2.1 million passengers a year and airlines including Ryanair, Monarch, Finnair and Wizz.
Budget lodging is also on the rise. Israel has notoriously inflated hotel prices — a 2015 study from the World Economic Forum ranked Tel Aviv as the world’s sixth most expensive city in which to rent a room — which led Minister of Tourism Yariv Levin to push through a proposal awarding lower-priced hotels an administrative grant of 13 percent of their investment. The grant was approved in June, and Eilat is now bracing for a flurry of new hotel construction.
In the meantime, tour operators and locals residents in the Negev Desert are scrambling to offer their own affordable lodging to visitors. A number of desert kibbutzim, including Kibbutz Eilot Eilat, Kibbutz Lotan and Kibbutz Neot Semadar, have unveiled English-language web pages to market their own private guesthouse options, where double occupancy rates for rooms with kitchenettes, including access to kibbutz amenities like swimming pools and basketball courts, average around 420 shekels ($118) a night.