Starry Skies and Wide Open Spaces

The view from Sefi Hanegbi's tent near Arad is a beautiful, wide desert panorama. Dusky brown mountains, four camels on the ridge, sheep grazing in the nearby wadi. Colorful rugs cover the ground in the tent, the black canvas offers comforting shade, and Efrat Sar Shalom, Hanegbi's partner, is playing the harp right outside. When Hanegbi pours sweet tea into small glasses and enthusiastically portrays the wonderful future of the developing Negev tourism industry, the listener is easily persuaded. Hanegbi leans back into the soft cushions and fantasizes of the Israeli desert as a tourist dreamland to which visitors swarm in from all ends of the earth.

A few days later, after several more talks and meetings, it turns out that reality is slightly more complicated, but dreams nevertheless continue to play a pivotal role. The vision of David Ben-Gurion about settling the Negev is changing form, and currently revolves around building several hundred bed-and-breakfasts and turning the Negev into a magnet for tourists and a place where Israelis will want to spend their weekends.

The biggest dream, which overshadows all others, is the renewal of foreign tourism. Everyone in the industry hopes and maintains that the current halt is temporary, that this is a transition period, and that once uncertainty is over, the tourists - who have stayed away since October 2000 - will return.

Surprisingly, it is in the last three years that tourism in the Negev has taken a significant turn. Although foreign tourism is virtually nonexistent, the number of visitors to the area remains steady. This means that the number of Israelis touring the Negev has increased by 30 percent. New B&Bs, restaurants and entertainment facilities open every month. Camping sites are also gaining popularity: during Passover this year, 1,000 cars were counted at the camping sites of Ein Akeb and Ein Zik on a single night.

The plans, drafted when European tourists were coming in hordes to see the desert, the antiquities and the ancient trade routes and to use the open and easy border passes between Israel and Jordan, may have been geared toward foreign tourism. But the outcome of these plans - B&Bs in the Arava, the alternative treatments and seminars at Mitzpeh Ramon, and the jeep rides, camel rides and other forms of desert tourism - are now open to all.

The big enigma is what kind of tourism will develop in Israel's south. It seems the underlying question, whether desert tourism even stands a chance, is no longer in dispute. Even those who still say that people have a natural fear of the desert, acknowledge that the Negev is now attracting more visitors than ever before. Sde Boker field school director Eran Doron, a compelling advocate of Negev tourism, explains: "Once people used to tour the Sinai; then, when they had no other choice, they went back to the Negev. But the slogan `Negev action' was a poor choice. Today the approach is reversed - give us the Negev as a place of peace and rest, where we can get a new perspective on urban life."

Doron is certain that there is no other place in this concrete-clad country that can provide such serenity. The Negev therefore has a lot to offer nature lovers who are not looking for fancy attractions. "The attraction in the Negev is the open spaces," Doron explains, "which is why we must not build Disneyland clones here." People must acknowledge that the Negev "won't be every tourist's choice. But I aim to get 10 times more tourists than we currently have."

Tsur Sheizaf, a writer and journalist who spent a lot of time in the Negev and has written much about it, identifies similar advantages and refers to the region as "this country's mental horizon." A landscape like this gives "people the peace they need to deal with congested urban society. Preservation of open spaces, the last piece of primordial landscape that we have here, is the only way to maintain the beauty and quality of the Negev," he says.

"Not every corner of this country has to be settled. We need the open spaces to keep a sound mental balance, and it would be a wise thing to define the Negev this way officially," Sheizaf stresses.

Tourism developers, on the other hand, acknowledge the significance of open spaces and a pristine and pure environment, but also understand what their clients are looking for and what's good for business. They therefore stress the importance of lodging conditions and the standard of the restaurants. Without these amenities, nature may well be preserved, but there will be no tourism and no revenues.

When Shahar Shilo, a seasoned tour guide and an expert on desert tourism and the ancient perfume trade route, explains his vision for Negev tourism, he talks of a combination of open spaces and an infrastructure-free environment on the one hand, and luxurious rooms to go to in the evening on the other. These rooms should offer a nice view of the desert sunset, but also whirlpool baths, soft towels and superb meals. Shilo's vision includes things like camel rides along the perfume route in the daytime, and special events in the evening.

The small-enterprise revolution

In the last 12 years, the Tourism Ministry invested around NIS 200 million in developing tourism in the Negev (not including the Dead Sea and Eilat). Most of the money, some NIS 115 million, was directed toward developing tourism infrastructure; NIS 40 million went toward creating tourist attractions and bed-and-breakfast facilities, and another NIS 50 million was invested in the development and expansion of Highway No. 40, between Be'er Sheva and Mitzpeh Ramon.

To illustrate how problematic this division of resources is, suffice it to note that in Masada alone NIS 110 million were invested between 1990 and 2003.

All parties involved (the Tourism Ministry, Har Hanegev tourism association and local residents) agree that unpretentious, small-scale private enterprise represents the biggest hope for tourism in the Negev. The association's coordinator, Raz Arbel, calls this hope "the revolution of small enterprise." He says that instead of turning to large developers who build capital-intensive projects that are in many cases environmentally unfriendly, the association tries to encourage private initiatives. This is how it worked in Mitzpeh Ramon and how it is now happening in the Arava region: B&B's, galleries, small cafes and entertainment facilities are opening all the time. These are family businesses whose owners feel committed to their communities and the environment.

Three years ago, for example, Amos and Shuli Aviran, pepper farmers from Moshav Faran in the Arava, started a khan - the ancient Middle Eastern equivalent of today's B&B. Faran, which is an hour's drive from Eilat, was never perceived as a tourist attraction. Kushi Rimon's megalomaniacal eatery at the nearby Be'er Menucha was the closest thing to a restaurant that the area could boast until then, and no one even imagined spending the night anywhere except Eilat. Things have changed. There are currently some 160 rooms, of varying description, available in the Arava: Ein Yahav offers 39 rooms, Tsofar six, Hatseva 48, Idan five.

On the day we visited the Aviran khan in Faran, Amos Aviran took four rare French tourists on a jeep ride in the Arava. Foreign guests make us hopeful, he explains. "When we started thinking of building the khan and offering tours of the region, foreign tourism was booming. Now there are hardly any foreign visitors at all, and absurd as it may seem, this is encouraging. If we can do all right now - we have work and in the high season (September to May) we are fully booked on weekends - there is good reason to be optimistic. Eventually the foreign tourists are bound to return."

The khan is a beautiful, special place, with a long straw hut and a shady veranda around a large central court. The hut is divided into several separate rooms that can each accommodate six to 15 visitors. There are no beds, and guests sleep on mattresses on the floor, which is covered with rugs and cushions. Towels and sheets are not provided, and the communal showers are at the end of the veranda. But there are flowers blooming all around, a small pond with goldfish, and most importantly - incomparable hospitality.

It is here that we realized that the most provocative question one can ask in the Arava these days is "What's there to do here?" This query produced a long list of detailed answers, information sheets, maps, tourist routes and photographs. In our two days at the khan, we were offered enough activities to last us until retirement. One of them, a relaxed sunset walk to the nearby Eshet Hill, indeed offers better insight into the concept of tranquillity that Negev boosters keep talking about.

To the fountain of youth

While the desire to persuade tourists that that there is plenty to do in the Negev may generate an amusing flood of suggestions, there is undoubtedly one kind of activity that is thriving throughout the region. In line with the notion that the desert is supposed to provide the remedy for the accelerated pace of life in the country's crowded center, the Negev now offers all kinds of treatments to soothe restless urban souls.

In Mitzpeh Ramon, population 5,700, you can find experts that specialize in more than 20 methods of alternative treatment. A therapists' forum was recently set up, with a price list and brief biography of the therapists, enabling visitors to take their pick. The Sapir industrial area houses the Fountain of Youth [in Hebrew, Ma'ayan Hane'urim] - a spa fed on a nearby hot water spring. Ein Yahav sells natural aloe vera products. Sefi Hanegbi is currently planning the construction of a center for spiritual tourism near Arad. He says self-awareness, leadership and creativity workshops will be held there, as well as open-air concerts. One of the models for his enterprise is Succah Bamidbar (the Hebrew term for "desert hut"), at the edge of the Ramon crater (Makhtesh Ramon), where for the past several years activity of this kind has been taking place with minimal facilities and maximum integration with nature. Hanegbi readily admits that not everyone would enjoy this kind of holiday, but explains that enough variety will develop to offer something in the desert for everyone. Some visitors will choose to stay in hotels, others in B&Bs, and those who have had enough of both or are looking for something different, will seek more unique options.

Two desert hotels are currently being planned in the Arava. One, near Moa (Moyat Aawad), is already under construction. In both projects, the designers followed similar principles: maximum preservation of the desert scenery, proximity though not adjacency to the Arava road, access only on dirt roads with car parking by the road and special 4x4 shuttles to the hotel - or at least these are the plans. Since Israeli tourists aren't too happy about parting with their cars, there are those who are quite skeptical about the plan. But the designers stress that in other places in the world, like desert resorts in Morocco, for example, it works beautifully. Here too, foreign tourists are key.

Ecotourism, which emphasizes the preservation of nature, has in the last few years become a global hit. Eran Doron concurs with all other Negev tourism operators in confirming that this is an oxymoron, since any form of tourism by definition violates the environment, especially in the case of such a sensitive environment as the desert. But everyone agrees that if that's what the Europeans are looking for, that's what we'll give them - if they only come.

Once they do, the Perfume Road, an ancient trade route that crosses the Negev between Moa and Makhtesh Ramon and from there to the Gaza port, is set to become one of the main attractions in the south. It was on this road that the Nabateans carried myrrh and frankincense, ancient perfumes, from Yemen and Arabia to Europe. The entire route is 1,800 kilometers long, and its Israeli leg crosses the Negev, entering from Jordan near Moshav Tsofar. In ancient times, crossing the Negev by camel took five days. Every night the camel trains stopped at stations whose remains are still visible along the route. In Moa, the most eastern stop, a carefully-designed reddish gate was installed a few years ago to indicate the start of the Perfume Road. Not too far away, on the eastern side of the modern-day road, stands the memorial for Israelis who were killed trying to reach Petra, many years before the peace agreement with Jordan was signed.

Today one can only follow the Israeli path of the Perfume Road in a 4x4 vehicle. The part between Moa and Makhtesh Ramon includes several stations and small forts that were used in olden days to protect the caravans. Most of them have recently been rebuilt as part of the concept of preserving the ancient road, and just to answer the tourists' recurring question of "what's there to see."

But the natural views are still the main attraction. The road winds and goes up the hills, and the highest spots offer breathtaking desert vistas. There are very few places in Israel where you can stand on a mountaintop and look around from one horizon to the other without seeing any human imprint - no houses, roads or power lines. Using a 4x4, you pass the ancient site of Moa, Hirbet Kasra and the Fort of Nekarot. This is not an easy route, but the bumpiness is apparently part of its appeal.

The issue of all-terrain vehicles is somewhat touchy. Over the last 10 years since these cars started becoming popular in Israel, drivers have caused serious damage to the landscape. They leave tire tracks in the pristine landscape, destroy animal habitats and scare away anything living in the vicinity.

Things are different now, people in the industry maintain. Raviv Shapira, who is in charge of the southern district of the Israel Nature and Parks Protection Authority, insists that motorists now understand the need to use only designated roads. Drivers' behavior has drastically changed, he says, thanks to uncompromising enforcement but more importantly, thanks to education and public relations. Four-by-four drivers realize, Shapira says, that they are devastating the very source of their enjoyment. He goes so far as to equate the transformation in public awareness to that achieved in the successful campaign decades ago, which taught Israelis not to pick wild flowers.

Some of the stops along the Perfume Road, such as Khan Saharonim or the Nabatean-Byzantine city of Ovdat, can be reached by car. The western stations - Shivta, Halutza and Eshkol Park - can be reached by ATVs or on the regular road.

The `Bedouin problem'

The drive from Moa to Makhtesh Ramon takes around four hours. For the past eight years, the Be'erot camping site at the crater has been operated by a young Bedouin, Sami al-Granawi. He provides lunch on order and organizes tours of the crater and group activities.

Granawi is the positive example that Negev tourism organizers like to quote when asked about where the Bedouin fit into the new projects. But even those who mention him agree he is an exception.

"There's a problem with the Bedouin," all those interviewed here agreed. As happened in many other fields, the Bedouin have been left out of the loop in the recent developments in Negev tourism. While no one disputes the importance of what's known as ethnic tourism, which shows the culture of the region, or the great contribution that the Bedouin can make to tourism in the area, in reality there are very few tourism enterprises established or run by Bedouin.

The biggest challenge, Eran Doron says, is to get the Bedouin to be part of the tourism efforts, "to keep them from turning into a threat." Tsur Sheizaf decries their transformation from "the greatest knights of nature to victims of the establishment who destroy the environment in revenge." Sefi Hanegbi stresses that the state has in the past prevented them from taking the initiative, but he hopes that this attitude has now changed and that as a result the Bedouin may come up with initiatives of their own. Raviv Shapira of the Israel Nature and National Parks Protection Authority feels that it is up to the Bedouin themselves to find their niche. "They have unique assets," he explains, "which they should tap into and profit by."

But for now, with Negev tourism already revolving around private enterprises that generate profits for residents, the Bedouin still are not benefiting from the trend. Many people still perceive them as encroaching on the open spaces, and even as criminal elements.

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