Israel's Grand Canyon Town Struggles to Shake Off Sand

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"Tell me, do you know if there's an open restaurant around here?" we asked Solomon, the owner of the only grocery store we found open on a recent Friday afternoon in Mitzpeh Ramon. He innocently directed us back to the restaurants from which we had just come, though the signs on their doors had left us eager for sustenance.

"They're closed?" he asked in amazement. "What happened? Has everyone become rich in this place so they can afford to close on Friday evening?"

The luxury Beresheet Hotel, which costs up to NIS 2,300 a night for a room with a view of the crater. It has had only a limited effect on the town.Credit: David Bachar

At a time of the weekend when the centers of many Israeli cities are crowded and vibrant, the Spice Route Quarter of this small, sleepy desert town - the area that's supposed to cater to tourists - is almost unbearably quiet.

We did eventually find somewhere for a late lunch - Hakatzeh, a home-style restaurant in the Spice Route Quarter, so named because the area was on the ancient spice route - but only after wandering around for about an hour.

"It's quiet here because the place is intended for private businesspeople, and there aren't many of those," said Saar Badash, the proprietor of the town's Desaar Natural Life store, which offers natural products from the Negev.

A few hours earlier, while we were in the store, a tourist couple from Sweden walked in. They had read about the Ramon Crater in their Lonely Planet travel guide and decided to go through Mitzpeh Ramon, which overlooks the northern wall of the 500-meter-deep crater, on their way back from Eilat. They looked around a bit, turned around and left empty-handed.

The Swedish couple are among thousands of tourists who visit the Negev town every year, either staying at one of the six hotels or the dozens of bed and breakfasts in the area or just passing though on the way to or from Eilat. But even this lively traffic has not succeeded in shaking the layer of desert sand off the town's somnolent businesses.

Between the geology and beauty of the Ramon Crater, the historical significance of the ancient trade route and the proximity to the Red Sea resort town of Eilat, Mitzpeh Ramon appears to have a lot of unfulfilled tourism potential, an impression confirmed by several tourism experts.

Though 40 percent of Mitzpeh Ramon's 5,000 residents do tourism-related work, the unemployment rate there is nearly double the national average and the wages are lower.

Between 9 percent and 10 percent of the town's residents are unemployed, compared with 5.4 percent across the country, according the Israel Employment Service. And those who are employed earn NIS 6,800 on average in Mitzpeh Ramon, compared with NIS 8,560 elsewhere.

Many observers see tourism as the way out.

"Tourism is an industry that contributes to regional development," said Arie Reichel, a professor of hotel and tourism management at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. "It is the key to economic development, especially in peripheral areas, with the aim of, among other things, employing people at various levels, from blue collar to white collar."

Mitzpeh Ramon should become home to business owners, not just their employees, said Reichel. "Otherwise all that remains is property tax, [other] taxes and not particularly high wages for the working residents," he said. "When the money flows out and doesn't stay in the area, only the owners make money."

Room with a view

Ten months ago it looked like a different reality could begin to take shape in Mitzpeh Ramon. At that time, to great fanfare and with NIS 21 million in government funding, the Isrotel chain opened the luxury Beresheet Hotel in the town.

The complex includes 111 rooms, three restaurants, a gym, two large swimming pools and 39 smaller but private pools. The prices were geared for a wealthy clientele: NIS 1,100 to NIS 1,800 per night for a standard room, and NIS 1,700 to NIS 2,300 for a room with a view of the crater and a private pool.

"Before the Beresheet Hotel opened, every hotel in Mitzpeh Ramon was listed as a four-star hotel," said Tourism Ministry director general Noaz Bar-Nir, explaining the government investment in the hotel. "We wanted to bring Beresheet up to the highest standard of hotel service because we understood its employment and regional potential. And indeed, the commitment to high-quality service is making Beresheet one of the most manpower-intensive hotels in Israel."

The hotel has high occupancy rates - about 80 percent on average - and 230 employees, but so far it has had nothing but a limited effect on the town where it is located. Until two months ago most of the workers were from nearby Yeruham and Dimona; it is only very recently that Mitzpeh Ramon residents have begun to take up about half the staff positions. Maybe the wealthy tourists who stay at Beresheet are spending a lot of money at the hotel, but the town itself isn't getting much out of it. There is one overpowering reason they aren't leaving money with the town's merchants: Even if you look, there is hardly anywhere to spend it.

Consumer culture? Not in the desert

Mitzpeh Ramon can seem like an ideal place for establishing desert tourism enterprises. The town, which was founded 55 years ago and is about 89 kilometers from Be'er Sheva, is located in one of the wildest and most beautiful natural settings in Israel. It's only a two-hour drive from Tel Aviv, but seems like its opposite.

Even if the residents wanted to take part in the consumer culture, they'd be hard put to do so. There are no clothing chains like Zara or Castro on the streets of Mitzeh Ramon, which are bare of billboards and advertisements. There's no movie theater or cultural center in town, and though the Mitzpeh Ramon Jazz Club does host musical ensembles every weekend, it serves more as a center for musical education and enrichment than as an entertainment hot spot.

But there are glimmers of hope - including businesses, both new and old, that could appeal to tourists.

There's a bar (Havit, which recently celebrated its 20th anniversary ), a place to practice your proficiency with a bow and arrow (the Desert Archery Park, which bills itself as "the only place in the world where you can enjoy a game of archery while hiking through natural desert terrain" ) and a gourmet French restaurant (Chez Eugene ). There's also a family-run workshop that manufactures natural organic soaps (NatureScent ) and a dance school (Adama ), as well as an alpaca farm and several family-run farms near town.

And there's the glimmer glinting off the money the government has been funneling to the town over the past two years. In addition to the funds allocated for Beresheet Hotel, the Tourism Ministry has also set aside NIS 9.5 million for infrastructure development in Mitzpeh Ramon, mostly in the Spice Route Quarter and the sculpture garden overlooking the crater.

The Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee was behind the construction of a landing strip in Mitzpeh Ramon, which is meant to encourage light aircraft to stop in on the way between Tel Aviv and Eilat, and provides support for cultural events. The ministry is currently seeking a strategic plan to increase the population of Mitzpeh Ramon, raise the employment level and improve the infrastructure.

Not enough

However, pouring money into infrastructure does not appear to be enough. Take the four-dunam Spice Route Quarter, located at the northern entrance to the town, for example. It features hangars built in the 1970s, as part of the government-funded construction of industrial zones in poor towns. Now that a massive renovation has turned the area into a pedestrian mall, it has 15 to 20 small businesses, including the Adama dance school. But it's not a strong center of tourism yet.

Some business owners accused the municipality of failing to do enough to promote tourism.

One businessman said municipal inspectors are timing their visits to coincide with the high season, such as the Jewish holiday period in the fall, potentially turning away customers and deterring owners of small businesses geared toward tourists.

"Last Sukkot an inspector came in the middle of the holiday to one of the bed-and-breakfasts in town, when the place was full of people," the businessman said. "He started taking pictures of the place and inspecting buildings and infrastructure. Doing a thing like that during the days when there are the most tourists - that's dirty. The next holiday a business owner like that will lower his profile and won't try to develop new ventures. That's the reason many have already despaired."

The municipality dismissed the complaint. "There is a tourism coordinator and there is a development department, which supports the businesspeople from the first moment until the enterprise is launched," said Flora Shoshan, who heads Mitzpeh Ramon's local council. "Mitzpeh Ramon is a model for entrepreneurship and small businesses."

That doesn't mean that Shoshan sees tourism as her town's sole growth engine, though.

"Shoshan has admitted to me that she does not believe in tourism as an engine of growth for Mitzpeh Ramon, but rather high-tech," one business owner said. "And really, we aren't feeling that tourism is the council's first or even second priority."

Shoshan said Mitzpeh Ramon needs more than tourists.

"The attributes of Mitzpeh Ramon do indeed point it in the direction of tourism, but as council head I would like to see a different mix," she said. "Everyone knows that tourism is not a firm economic base. It is subject to changes. Furthermore, the pay in the industry is not high, which means that the residents will be left with salaries that are among the lowest in the economy. I want to bring a mix here of knowledge-intensive industries, high-tech, art, agriculture and individual business entrepreneurship that supports tourism. I want to bring employment to Mitzpeh, with salaries that improve the situation of the residents."

Perhaps because of Shoshan's interest in bringing such a mix to Mitzpeh Ramon, the town is not investing in its tourism department, which consists of a single part-time employee named Dina Dayan.

"There's no doubt that this is a problem, but the council can't afford to fund this alone," said Dayan. "Why isn't the Tourism Ministry establishing and funding a department that's dedicated to tourism and is active on a daily basis? There has to be a tourism department with people working in it who devote their entire day and all their time and energy to this area. Today the council does not have the ability to maintain this."

"There's no doubt that Mitzpe Ramon is not where it ought to be," she said. "The state needs to invest more in us because the council is unable to fund content."

Next up: Desert Edge

There is still hope for tourism in Mitzpeh Ramon. Two proposals on the table include an urban construction plan for seven areas where more hotels could go up, about 200 meters from the crater. Then there is the Desert Edge Project, which will consist of several agricultural and tourism sites northwest of Mitzpeh Ramon. According to Bar-Nir of the Tourism Ministry, the area is slated to offer about 300 rooms in a number of small hotels.

"That's the relative advantage of the region," said Eran Raz, who plans to run a tourist site as part of Desert Edge. "There is no need for big hotels, but rather small ones that offer a personal relationship with people who come to relax."

Raz said he has been waiting 10 years for a permit, and blamed the slow bureaucratic process on the Israel Lands Administration. The ILA said it has been examining the plan September 2011 and said it should be coming up shortly for discussion.

But some residents, including business owners, are wary of what too much tourism could bring to Mitzpeh Ramon.

"It will be a disaster if Mitzpeh Ramon turns into Eilat," said Hadas Meir, who opened the Lasha bakery in town when she moved there three years ago. "Who can live in a place like that? I don't want a tourism monster here."

"There are people here who want to turn it into a place loaded with attractions, off-road buggies and noise," she said. "I mainly want to earn a dignified living. Isrotel and Ayala Tours [which owns the town's Ramon Hotel] want more. They don't care about us living pleasantly and being able to hike along the rim of the canyon with our children. They have come here to make money."