Save Israel's Sasgon Valley

Israel is becoming crowded and nature is the victim; new tourism facilities, like new roads, utilities and communities, should be located in already built-up areas whenever possible.

Sasgon Valley - Zafrir Rinat - 13122011
The Sasgon Valley in the Arava, where a hotel is slated to be built. Zafrir Rinat

Last week the Southern District Planning and Building Committee approved the construction of a hotel in the Sasgon Valley, in the southern Arava Desert. In theory, this is a local zoning decision about the development of a tourist site. But the future of the Sasgon Valley, with its unique landscape, is connected to a moral principle that has national significance.

The more crowded and built-up Israel becomes, the greater the importance of unspoiled nature sites. They afford a sense of open spaces and preserve special features of the outdoor environment. The Sasgon Valley elicits immediate wonder from visitors because of the rich variety of colors in the soil and the surrounding mountains. There aren’t too many places like that left in the Negev and the Arava Desert, which are becoming crowded with infrastructure, communities and farms and used for military training.

The district committee’s decision facilitates the transformation of unique nature sites into construction sites. It conveys the notion that it’s not enough to enjoy nature, it must be refashioned to obtain some coveted tourism experience as envisioned by the Tourism Ministry.

It’s time to change this approach and instead display extreme restraint and caution with regard to the few natural areas that still remain in Israel. They should be preserved, not used for another swimming pool or luxury vacation bungalow that “blends into the landscape,” as developers like to say.

New tourism facilities, like new roads, utilities and communities, should be located in already built-up areas whenever possible. In the case of the Sasgon Valley, there is an alternative site for the hotel that is nearby and already has the necessary infrastructure for tourism.

Members of the planning committee argued that this alternative isn’t realistic. It is in an area zoned for nature and landscape preservation in the national master plan, which will pose obstacles to approval. But as the Adam, Teva V’Din environmental organization pointed out in the opinion it submitted to the committee, a recent change to the master plan would enable the development of that site.

What’s needed is a change in approach by the Tourism Ministry and particularly the person who heads it, Tourism Minister Yariv Levin. Instead of encouraging construction in nature sites, he should be encouraging people to visit them.

The best example of this approach is the lake in the Hula Valley. In the past there were proposals to built hotels on the shore, but they were canceled in order to protect the habitat of the area’s plants and animals. It has since become Israel’s most popular nature site.