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.


  1. Tom Powers

    Matthew: Very interesting post.

    The sinkholes are a troubling phenomenon indeed, and to advance a major development program without first taking concrete actions to stabilize both the water level and the shoreline is, as you say, quite mad. The geological process behind the sinkholes is interesting: As the northern basin of the sea continues to drop precipitously, less saline water intrudes into the shore areas and simply dissolves them from underneath — not surprisingly, they are composed largely of salt.

    At Ein Bokek the situation is completely different: Not only do the shallow evaporation ponds stand in their entirety many metres above the level of the northern basin, but their water level is constantly RISING. This is so counter-intuitive that when it was explained to us in our guide course I found it quite intriguing!

    Here’s how it works: Over the several decades of mineral extraction, untold tons of unwanted compounds have also precipitated out and accumulated on the floor of the shallow pools. In short, the pools fill up with residue at quite a rapid rate. So, In order to maintain pools with a certain depth of water, ever-higher dikes or berms (of salt!) are required. The entire installation, then, is rising in elevation over time — the floor of the pool, the surface of the water, and the enclosing dikes — until today the water feeding the pools is pumped UP, I believe 15 or 20 metres in elevation, from the northern basin of the Dead Sea.

    You can see the implications for the Ein Bokek tourism infrastructure. The steadily rising water levels are already encroaching upon the hotels and endangering their foundations. Indeed, not long ago, your suggestion of razing the Ein Bokek hotels was under serious consideration! In the end, however, the State of Israel seems to have reached an agreement with the Dead Sea Works company to dredge out the pools to keep the water at bay.

    TOM POWERS / Jerusalem

  2. Mika

    Hm, I didn’t know that about Dead sea. It looks that it would really be dead, eventually. I wonder what people from Jordan will do after that happens.

  3. Travel Israel

    That’s really sad to know. The dead sea does not only fascinate tourists because non-swimmers can float easily, but its history is also very rich and it can symbolical in a way as well.
    – Jonathan

  4. Matthew Teller

    @Tom – fascinating background insight – thanks for that. The whole situation seems completely unsustainable.

    @Mika – my guess is they’ll try to spend exorbitant amounts of money reviving it…

    @Jonathan – very true.

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