sasgon - Yuval Tebol - December 6 2011
The area in the Sasgon Valley where a hotel is planned. Photo by Yuval Tebol
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The struggle between environmental groups and the Tourism Ministry over a proposed hotel complex in the Sasgon Valley in the Arava desert has intensified ahead of a meeting next week to decide the project's future.

The Tourism Ministry has prepared a position paper for the Southern District Planning and Building Committee, which objects to all the alternative sites suggested for the project. The environmental groups say the ministry is favoring business interests over environmental considerations.

The Israel Nature and Parks Authority announced two weeks ago that it also objects to the hotel being built in the Sasgon Valley, a treasured scenic area close to Timna Park. The Igra Group, which operates the Herod's Palace hotel in Eilat, is behind the proposed project, which includes a 400-room hotel that the company says will blend into its surroundings.

Green groups say that the hotel would be an irreversible blot on the landscape, and after a prolonged legal battle, the Ethos Architecture and Planning consultancy company was appointed to review the plans. Ethos advised rejecting the proposed site and suggested alternative plots, including one closer to Timna.

The planning committee has to decide between these alternatives.

The Tourism Ministry has drawn up a detailed document outlining its objections to the alternative sites suggested by Ethos. According to the ministry, the alternatives lack interest to tourists, the terrain will make the project far more expensive, and the need to make so many far-reaching changes to the plan will push back its implementation by several years.

The ministry says the Sasgon Valley site is more accessible, increasing its importance to the tourism industry, and that rejecting the original site would mean turning away a hotelier with a proven ability to come through on plans. The ministry warned that reneging on the decision-making process would have repercussions on future entrepreneurs who will want to promote similar plans.

Local residents who have fought the plan and environmental groups, including Adam, Teva V'Din - the Israel Union for Environmental Defense, and the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel, reject the Tourism Ministry's claims, saying the state has a financial interest in helping to secure the project.

The environmental organizations accuse the Tourism Ministry of not presenting a full and accurate picture of the alternative sites suggested to the Igra Group. The environmentalists say that all the alternative sites are feasible, and some of them afford magnificent desert views.

"The choice of the Sasgon Valley is unreasonable," the environmental organizations wrote in their opinion to the planning committee. "It is the best preserved section of the Timna Valley, and according to the principle of sustainable development, there is no logic in harming it. It should certainly have been expected that the Tourism Ministry's position would take into account maintaining the Sasgon Valley in its natural state for the sake of tourism."