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Nature's playground

The way from Be'erot camping site at Makhtesh Ramon to the visitors center at Mitzpeh Ramon, overlooking the crater, is short. The high hopes they had here for developing Negev tourism have only materialized in part. Granted, there is some tourist activity around and in the crater, at Mitzpeh Ramon, at the visitors center and in places such as Succah Bamidbar, but the big breakthrough in the town that sees itself as the capital of Negev tourism, has been slow in coming.

The director of the Mitzpeh Ramon Economic Corporation, Yaakov Shavit, is aware of the town's potential. With more than 20 years of experience, first as the manager of the town's field school and later as a developer of desert tourism, Shavit is an enthusiastic advocate of the international potential of this place. "Nature's playground" is what he dubs the crater.

Even now, when it seems like most of the action is actually in other, smaller places, Shavit stresses the town's makeover, describes the convention center that is being built next to Ramon Inn, and explains how the old-fashioned commercial center will soon include desert-style orchards on traditional farming terraces. Next to the university observatory, another one will be built that will be open to the public. Visitors will be welcome to enjoy the bright stars, which are much more visible here than in the city. All these attractions, along with a projected 2,500 hotel rooms, are meant to turn Mitzpeh Ramon into the urban center of desert tourism.

Like Hanegbi in his tent, Shavit too, speaking at the beautiful visitors' center overlooking the crater, is extremely convincing. But reality is different. There are 1,500 families living in Mitzpeh Ramon; only 300 make their living from tourism. Shavit is certain that this figure can be doubled.

Glorious solitude

Meanwhile, Negev tourist developers are nurturing ties with agencies like UNESCO, in the hope that like Acre and Masada, the Perfume Roads will also be added to the World Heritage sites list.

Two other, much newer roads, stretch along the borders with Jordan and Egypt, providing relatively unfamiliar travel routes. The eastern one, which in part follows the alignment of Wadi Arava, has been nicknamed "Peace Road." For a while, in more optimistic times, this road was considered a model for peaceful coexistence between Israeli and Jordanian farmers.

Peace Road is very close to the Jordanian border, and because of the border adjustments that were made here, it provides a unique opportunity to drive along the Arava riverbed, which by and large demarcates the border between the two countries. The road, paved mostly by the Jewish National Fund, runs between Moshav Idan in the north and Ein Yahav in the south. Cars can easily travel this road, and visitors can stop to take brief walks (Amos Aviran referred to this route as "a senior citizens' outing".) There are several lovely vistas along the road, such as Mitzpeh Hufeira and Mitzpor Hashalom. Travelers can also take walks between the amazing giant rock formations near Moshav Idan. Also, the road allows easy access to the eastern part of Sheizaf Reservation.

The other, older, road runs between the border passage at Nitzana and Harif Mountain, from which access is available to Lotz Pits, the ancient water cisterns, and to Mitzpeh Ramon. Two of the most spectacular vista points in the country are built along this road, in the leg south of Nitzana: Mitzpeh Kadesh and Mitzpeh Barnea offer a view of large parts of the Negev, the Egyptian border and the western part of the desert.

Throughout the drive on these two peaceful roads, we didn't see a single car. The soldiers at the roadblock near Harif Mountain opened the gate with happiness and dismay. "You're not here for military reserve service?" they asked, staring at the three kids and the dog in the back seat. "You're just traveling?" they asked, astounded.

At first it sounds very sad, but on second thought it is actually rather nice: If in a crowded country like Israel there is still a place where one can drive in solitude, that's a very good reason to relax. n