The Dry Life: Desert Tourism in Israel Is Heating Up

Moshe Gilad
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Living on the edge at Machtesh Ramon. Pull up a rock, sit down and happiness is guaranteed.Credit: Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

“In the desert, during various times of day and various seasons of the year, every place becomes different,” author Meir Shalev told cultural magazine Kvish 40 recently. “There is a wonderful quality of quiet, as well as an illusion of isolation. An illusion, because there’s always a highway 20 kilometers from there.” Shalev later talked of his great love for the desert – to him, the most wonderful place for touring in Israel.

Sefi Hanegbi, a veteran tour operator who lives in Zman Midbar (a vacation site near Arad), confirms that awareness of the desert has grown immeasurably in recent years. “An encounter with the desert does people good,” he says. “There is something healing about it. It’s a spiritual process. People connect to themselves here, and particularly in a region that is supposedly empty, there is spiritual confrontation and depth.”

According to Hanegbi, the development of desert tours stems from the fact that there are so many entrepreneurs trying to encourage people to the Negev. Every week, the region offers workshops for awareness, meditation and yoga. “Survival is something that is ingrained in us, and the demand for the desert is part of that,” he believes.

Hanegbi explains that the major revolution took place because these days, the desert is actually seen as something positive and beautiful. In other places in Israel, he says, there is a sense of suffocation. In the desert, in the wide open spaces, that feeling evaporates. You can breathe.

Gili Sofer, manager of the Yehelim Boutique Hotel in Arad, concurs that tourism is blooming in the desert. “The Israeli public now realizes that nature’s wide open spaces are in the south. The north is very crowded and unsatisfying. We cater to hikers, cyclists and jeep-tour participants who want to sleep in a comfortable and pampering place at the end of a day of touring. There are many such places now. The vast majority of the tourists are nature lovers who are interested in the geography and history of the country, and consider walking or riding a means of getting to know the area, and not an end in itself.”

The south is rising

Figures provided by Orit Steinfeld, from the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, for visits to three nature reserves in the north of the country and three in the south tell part of the story. The numbers indicate the difference between Israeli tourism in 2012 and 2013.

In the north, the situation was almost unchanged: In Nahal Snir, there was an increase of 1 percent; in Nahal Ayoun and Gamla in the Golan Heights, 4 percent.

In the south, on the other hand, the increase was far more impressive: 18 percent in Mamshit, near Dimona; 30 percent in Eshkol; and 7 percent in Avdat.

Can we detect a trend? After many years when most Israelis preferred the Galilee, the Golan or the Lake Kinneret area, can we observe the beginning of a beautiful relationship between Israeli tourists and the south? And if so, why didn’t it happen until now?

It’s easy to collect the statistics we have assembled here, because they indicate the number of visitors to the INPA’s nature reserves, where there is an entrance fee. It’s more difficult to get figures that reveal the touring habits of Israeli hikers. All of those interviewed for this article agreed that we are in the midst of a love affair with the desert. They are involved in various aspects of desert tourism and are extremely happy with the trend. They all wanted to explain the source of the change and make assessments about the future, but they couldn’t point to precise numbers.

Lee Balut opened the Green Backpackers hostel in Mitzpeh Ramon three years ago. She says that every year there is a 30 percent increase in the number of people staying at the hostel. “For a long time we’ve been asking the authorities to count the number of tourists in Machtesh Ramon or on hiking trails in the region. But unfortunately, that’s still not happening. We believe the Negev, thanks to its weather and hiking routes, could become the ‘desert of Europe.’ It could be the next international destination. At the moment, the most important thing is to develop information about the hiking and cycling trails. The tourists who come to the desert are active people who want to go out and visit distant places, even if that requires physical effort.”

Balut says the main difference between Israeli and foreign tourists involves sleeping arrangements. Foreigners prefer to be pampered at the end of a day of touring, in a place with a bed, Internet connection and food. Israelis, on the other hand – especially the younger ones – prefer to sleep outdoors and exploit the desert experience to the fullest.

Effie Perry is the director of the Har Hanegev tourism association. He was previously manager of the Mitzpeh Ramon Field School. He has several explanations for the new development. Many Israelis have realized, he says, that the only genuine outdoor experience in Israel is in the desert: “Here, there are open spaces and quiet that don’t exist in other places. It’s an educational process that’s been going on for a long time.”

All action, most of the time

Perry explains that tourists who come to the desert don’t want to stay in the hotel or at the pool. They want to tour, ride, walk and experience the surroundings. As an example, he cites jeep tours, which are flourishing in the Negev but declining in other parts of the country. Jeeps, he says, are a means of reaching a distant area. The same is true of cycling, which is now enjoying great popularity in the Negev, as well as new trails. The opening of parts of the Israel Trail (the Mitzpeh Ramon-Eilat section) to cycling is a lever that, in the near future, will attract many tourists to the Negev, adds Perry.

He says the Israel Trail for hikers has become a well-known brand attracting a large number of tourists, who hike parts of the trail or the entire route. “Twenty years ago, we hiked here alone. We hardly met anyone on the hiking trails. Today, there are far more hikers,” he observes.

Perry says the development of astronomy tourism, based on the fact that there is no “light pollution” in the desert sky – i.e., it’s almost completely dark – is another branch of tourism that will attract many visitors in the coming years. The plan is to build an observatory for tourists and “cleanse” the sky of any light that disturbs astronomy lovers.

When we discuss the fact that some Israelis are still cold to the idea of desert tours, some interviewees suggest military service may be part of the problem. Young people who served in the southern army bases at Tze’elim or Shivta are seen as reluctant to return to the Negev afterward as tourists. Hanegbi tells of many tourists who tell him they actually love the Negev, but it reminds them too much of reserve duty. It won’t always be like this, he adds: “We have already forgotten about Refidim [an Israeli army base in Sinai]. The military associations with the desert are now disappearing.”

Hanegbi believes that part of the change is due to far greater accessibility and a change of approach by tour planners. “A journey along the Spice Road that crosses the Negev is a long and very tiring jeep tour. Today, we do shorter, easier tours. It’s important to remember that not everyone is macho and wants to cross the desert, and so we have to enable those tourists who want only to dabble to do so and enjoy themselves.”

There is an ecological question about this trend: Do desert tours, which attract a large clientele, endanger the Negev, whose sands until recently remained almost undisturbed by tourists? Hanegbi says the most important thing is to estimate the numbers of tourists, and prevent them from visiting at the same time or remaining concentrated in one spot. He proposes building gates at the entrances to the most popular sites such as Machtesh Ramon or the other craters. At these key points, he says, it’s important to count the number of visitors, and when the number is excessive, to channel the tourists – with the help of accurate information – to other, less crowded tourist areas. He feels the most important aspect is providing information to tourists.

Information underload

Balut also believes the biggest current drawback is lack of information, maps and clear routes that can be recommended to tourists for hiking or cycling. She says that, for lack of choice, her hostel creates some of the information that the authorities should be producing. Another problem she cites is a chronic shortage of public transportation. Her dream includes buses that stop at key points, where hiking trails begin or end. Today, she says, that’s almost impossible.

Tomer Kahana, CEO of Atarei Midbar, believes that the main shortcoming concerns a lack of understand about the human aspects of the desert – the homesteads (havot bodedim), Bedouin, Wine Route and desert agriculture – all good levers for tourism that aren’t being fully exploited. He says the Negev balance is maintained quite well: along with the increased number of visitors, there has also been progress with regards to nature preservation and adherence to environmental values.

At the edge of Machtesh Ramon, there is a large flat rock. Every time I sat on it, whether early in the morning or late in the afternoon, I understood exactly what my interviewees were talking about. I had exactly the same feeling, one that’s so easy to achieve in the wide-open spaces of the desert yet impossible to achieve elsewhere. I was happy.

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