Environmental activists can breath a little easier this week after a ministerial committee approved a national master plan that includes an absolute prohibition against new vacation apartments along the Mediterranean beachfront.

This stance follows the construction of such beachfront developments as the Herzliya Marina and the Carmel Beach Towers in Haifa, which were built on land tipped for tourism and public use but where vacation apartments were ultimately converted into private residences. The new plan only permits vacation apartment construction near the Dead Sea and in Eilat, and construction is subject to numerous limitations.

With the ministerial committee's approval of the master plan, it is expected to come into force within two weeks. Its development took more than a decade. The plan should provide reserves of land for hotels and other tourist facilities. The new plan places special emphasis on tourism in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv and sets a construction target of at least 11,000 new hotel rooms in the capital and 4,000 in Tel Aviv by 2015.

The master plan contains several provisions to protect nature sites as well as those of historic heritage. It limits the total number of rooms at bed and breakfast facilities in a single community to 400, after 1,000 rooms were proposed in some locales. This prospect raised concerns about the harm this could cause to tourism development in such outlying urban areas as Kiryat Shmona in the north and Mitzpeh Ramon in the south.

With regard to the proliferation of tourist apartments, Itamar Ben David of the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel said the Tourism Ministry itself came around to the view that vacation apartments were gobbling up the tourist industry's land reserves, and that it was impossible to limit the use of such apartments to vacationers.

Following protracted discussions, the Tourism Ministry agreed to an almost total ban on new vacation apartment construction, limiting them to the Dead Sea and Eilat, but under severe restrictions.

Another innovation in the master plan is the limitation on the number of hotel rooms that can be built per dunam of land and on the scope of hotel projects in open rural areas. Officials at the Tourism Ministry have expressed the hope that the plan will help address what they see as a major shortage of hotel rooms in Israel. After the plan's approval, Tourism Minister Stas Misezhnikov (Yisrael Beiteinu ) said the plan "sends a message to developers here and abroad that Israel is an attractive country in which to invest in the tourism sector."