Aquaria’s watery theme park could transform the Red Sea city of Eilat.There will be water themed rides and attractions, amphitheaters, night clubs, museums, a convention center, restaurants, boutiques along a two kilometer street, a water park, and of course a new Olympic-size 18-hole golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones II.
These are the plans now on the table for a new $300 million entertainment center called Aquaria Entertainment City that could completely transform Israel’s Red Sea city of Eilat. With approval expected in the coming year, the developers of this new initiative, Aquaria, are keen to break ground on this ambitious Disneyland-style project.
Plans for Aquaria began as early as 2000, when Ran Ronen, a retired Brigadier General in the Israel Air Force and the then vice counsel for the State of Israel on the west coast of America was approached by American entrepreneurs who were interested in setting up an entertainment city in Israel.
“It was just after the peace treaty had been signed with Jordan and the atmosphere was very positive,” Ronen tells ISRAEL21c.
They traveled across Israel in search of the perfect location and found it in Eilat. “This was the place they were dreaming of,” says Ronen. Planning began in June 2002.
The huge 1,300 dunam beachfront project, the largest in Israel, will be located in Eilat, near the border of Jordan. The project was planned and designed by the teams that helped create Walt Disney’s Epcot park in Orlando and is based on attractions at Disney World, MGM, and Universal Studios. Amusement rides will be mixed into areas that mimic the look of other cities including Hollywood, New Orleans, San Francisco, Rio de Janeiro, St. Tropez, and Venice.
Sonnenblick-Goldman, a New York real-estate investment banking firm, is in charge of raising financing from US and European investors for the park.
“This project will have a tremendous impact on tourism to both Eilat and Israel,” says Ronen, who is also founder and chairman of Project Zahala for disadvantaged youth. “Eilat has always been about one product – tourism, and the tourists today are much more demanding. They are looking for activity for the whole family and this is exactly what we will offer – attractions that are suitable not only for children, but adults too.”
Ronen believes Eilat desperately needs this project. “Eilat is diving. It is losing altitude to Aqaba in Jordan and Taba in Egypt,” he explains. “The Saudis are investing $12.5 billion in Aqaba and Sinai will soon have 100,000 rooms, 20,000 of which are next door in Taba. How will Eilat compete with that? Eilat depends on Aquaria.”
Ronen estimates that Aquaria will require at least 2,000 new employees, and also bring increased employment to Eilat in other fields. In addition, he believes that it will inject more than $1 billion into the Israeli economy. “This is a huge project, we will need everything from managers and computer engineers to guards and restaurant workers. And every direct employee will bring two to three other employees in the city. It will change the city from A to Z,” he says.
According to statistics in 2002, 2.3 million people visited Eilat for an average stay of three days. With Aquaria, Ronen believes that figure will rise to 4.5 million visitors coming to the city for more than four days at a time. “We are creating a center not just for Israel, but for the whole region. People will stay in Eilat and take the bus to Petra for a day, or fly to the pyramids in Egypt,” he suggests.
Once approval is granted by the government and work at the site begins, Ronen believes that it will take just 36 months to finalize the project. While the infrastructure is prepared in Eilat, the attractions will be built in the US and then shipped to the port of Eilat in Lego-like pieces that can be slotted together upon arrival.
Ronen, who has just stepped down from his position as president of Aquaria, has been replaced by New York real estate developer, Joseph Bernstein. Bernstein is the founder of Americas Partners, which has developed many commercial projects in New York. Ronen will remain on board as an advisor, and Bernstein, who was raised in Israel but immigrated to the US in 1981, will now be responsible for the construction of the project and its grand opening, which is scheduled to take place in 2012.
Bernstein is also involved in another large potential tourist project in Israel, a 5-star $150 million golf resort and spa planned for Mount Arbel in the north of Israel.
“A world class ‘entertainment city’ in Israel will soften the international image of Israel, promote the country as a global leisure destination, and fortify Eilat in its competition with Taba, Sharm-El-Sheikh and Aqaba in Eilat’s strategy to become the ‘Heart of the Red Sea Riviera’,” said Bernstein. “This is a project whose time has come.”