Mad and bad

Ein Bokek, Israel

Mad (and bad) tourism news out of Israel, talking about a mammoth proposed development on their side of the Dead Sea, encompassing an unstated number of new hotels and spas. Read it and weep.

A couple of points.

The Dead Sea is collapsing. Because of the desperate shortage of water in the Middle East (Israel’s neighbour Jordan is one of the five driest countries in the world), the Dead Sea’s freshwater inflow has been dammed and underlying aquifers have been tapped beyond sustainable levels – not just by Israel, but by Jordan and, upstream, Syria too.

The Dead Sea surface is dropping by a metre a year. That’s a bit under an inch a week. Shoreline sinkholes are opening up because the ground is now so unstable. Hotels built on the beach 20 years ago are now marooned a mile from the water.

The most seductive plan to reverse the damage – the Red-Dead Canal – is challenged by environmentalists as too slow, too expensive and too uncertain. They say the most effective way to save the Dead Sea is to alter existing habits of unsustainable exploitation.

So up steps Israel with a hotel plan that is explicitly, and deliberately, exploitative.

The idea, so the article (presumably sourced from government PR) says, is to “emulate the spas and hotels on the [Jordanian] shore”. With the new Crowne Plaza (not yet open to the public), Jordan now has six Dead Sea hotels. At the Ein Bokek resort alone, Israel already has at least 14 hotels (I was once told 26 but that may have been an exaggeration), plus around half a dozen smaller establishments nearby – and that’s not counting the hotels at Ein Gedi just up the coast.

Kempinski Dead Sea, Jordan

If Jordan’s Dead Sea hotels lie “at the heart of [the country’s] tourism success” – which is debatable, incidentally – it’s because they’re world-class, not because they’re huge (they’re not) or because there are lots of them (there aren’t).

The concrete tourist pen of Ein Bokek, by contrast, is horrible, not least because it doesn’t stand beside open water, but by one of the industrial evaporation ponds which extract minerals from Dead Sea water. Here’s a story about it.

If Israel really wants to take a leaf out of Jordan’s book, it should bulldoze Ein Bokek and start again.

The Dead Sea’s “barren hills”, blithely mentioned for asphalting in the article, may look barren to a big-city hotel developer, but are better characterised as a unique wilderness habitat worthy of conservation. Such a scheme could generate jobs, tourism dollars, sustainable socio-economic development and perhaps a whisper of global prestige.

Yet the Knesset had NIS850m (US$220m; £135m) burning a hole in its pocket – so it asked the Israeli public how to spend it.

As Henry Ford once famously remarked, “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”

Mind you, if the Red-Dead Canal works and the Dead Sea starts filling up again, the whole miserable scheme could be underwater in twenty years. Nature always finds a way.