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Eilat: A tourist town during war

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Israel's war against Hamas has taken a massive toll. Of course, that includes the number of people dead and wounded, the infrastructure destroyed and the trauma that will last for years. NPR's international affairs correspondent Jackie Northam has this look at a different way the war is affecting Israel. The country's economy has taken a serious hit, including in tourism.

(SOUNDBITE OF WAVES CRASHING)

JACKIE NORTHAM, BYLINE: With the clear blue waters of the Gulf of Aqaba and the stark peaks of the surrounding mountains, Eilat has long been a major driver of Israel's economy, pulling in some 250,000 foreign tourists a month. That evaporated in early October after Hamas militants attacked Israel. Instead of tourists, Eilat's hotels are now filled with Israelis displaced by the war.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: (Screaming).

NORTHAM: When school lets out, the large, airy lobbies of Eilat's luxury hotels are filled with children, zooming by on scooters and grabbing ice cream. After the Hamas attack, the government evacuated more than 60,000 Israelis to Eilat. Michel Rahav (ph) comes from Navin (ph), a tiny community about a mile from the Gaza border, where five people were killed and another five taken hostage by Hamas on October 7. Rahav says militants stormed their house. Her husband shot one dead, then handed her an M16 rifle.

MICHEL RAHAV: He gave me the gun and we were looking at each other, and we said, we're fighting till the last bullet that we have.

NORTHAM: Rahav's house was destroyed, but the family survived. They arrived in Eilat with nothing and, like many others, relied on donations from the people in the city. Rahav says Eilat was like a cocoon, which helped them deal with the emotional aftermath of the Hamas attack. Like other displaced Israelis, Rahav's hotel rooms and food are paid for by the Israeli government.

RAHAV: The thing is, you know Eilat, I very much love this city. But it's remote from everything. And a lot of us work two, three hours from here.

NORTHAM: While evacuees like Rahav adjusted to their temporary homes, business owners in Eilat adjusted to a new reality. The once busy tree-lined boulevards are deserted. Restaurants and shops are empty, and worry amongst business owners is almost palpable. Shmulik Zino (ph) owns a 30-foot wood-trimmed tourist boat.

SHMULIK ZINO: When we go upstairs, you will see. I'll show you upstairs. Sorry about the mess.

NORTHAM: Zino says for three decades, the family-run business has been showing mostly European tourists the sights around Eilat.

ZINO: Doing cruises with a lunch and then also for diving, we sometimes are doing. And they - normally we are cruising around the border - Jordan, Egypt, Dolphin Reef.

NORTHAM: Nowadays, Zino spends his days doing maintenance on his boat and tending to his dockside flowerbed. He says he's taking a real financial hit because there are no tourists.

ZINO: Nothing. Nothing. Three and a half, four months - even not one cruise, we didn't have here. And we don't know what's going to be in the future, you know? We didn't see the end of this war.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: (Speaking Hebrew).

NORTHAM: Not far away, Sammy Azuli (ph) gazes wearily out at a few children playing in the Gulf of Aqaba and shakes his head. He owns Eilat Water Sports, which rents out paddleboards and the like. He's had to lay off 15 people. Azuli says many of the evacuees don't have money for water sports and adds that tourists don't want to come to a depressing place for vacation.

SAMMY AZULI: The problem is, so they don't like to stay because the atmosphere is not good. People are suffering. People are in a bad situation. Why should they come here? Who wants to come to make a holiday when there is only people who are very sad here?

NORTHAM: The Israeli government recently gave the municipality of Eilat 50 million shekels - about $13 million - to help businesses. Itamar Elitzur, CEO of Eilat Hotels Association, wants part of that money to be used for an advertising campaign aimed at the domestic market to let Israelis know there are great bargains on flights and hotel rooms and lots of things to do.

ITAMAR ELITZUR: The prices now in Eilat is the lowest one that was ever, like coming back from the '90s. The price is very, very cheap.

NORTHAM: Elitzur says the advertising campaign will encourage Israelis to just come take the air. In other words, relax, breathe deep. He says they avoid the word vacation because Israelis don't want to feel guilty about enjoying themselves during the war with Gaza.

ELITZUR: It's not like, come for vacation to Eilat. Most of us have somebody that we know that they are now in the war. So this is our neighbor. This is our friends - somebody involved. And I can't say to them, I'm going to vacation.

NORTHAM: More rooms are coming available as displaced Israelis in Eilat go home or find new places to live. About half of those who arrived in October have now left. Michel Rahav says all those from Navin are moving to the city of Be'er Sheva, which is closer to home.

RAHAV: We have our community to preserve, so we have to look forward. We have to continue moving.

NORTHAM: Anat Marlei (ph) will also go to Be'er Sheva. She's looking forward to leaving the hotel in Eilat.

ANAT MARLEI: I'm just waiting, you know, to be able - I can't believe I'm saying it, but cook, clean, wash the dishes.

NORTHAM: But Marlei says many other displaced Israelis aren't ready to leave.

MARLEI: A lot of the people are just saying, you know, we're - we have no plan on going back until we're - security is restored and the war - the goals of the fighting have been accomplished.

NORTHAM: Which means thousands of displaced Israelis could remain in Eilat for a long time. Jackie Northam, NPR News, Eilat.

(SOUNDBITE OF BLACK STAR SONG, "RESPIRATION (FEAT. COMMON)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Jackie Northam is NPR's International Affairs Correspondent. She is a veteran journalist who has spent three decades reporting on conflict, geopolitics, and life across the globe - from the mountains of Afghanistan and the desert sands of Saudi Arabia, to the gritty prison camp at Guantanamo Bay and the pristine beauty of the Arctic.
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