A controversial plan to build a hotel near the Timna Park was approved last week by the southern district’s planning and building committee.
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The plan was vehemently opposed by the Environmental Protection Ministry and green groups, which proposed several alternatives. But the planning committee rejected them all in favor of the original plan, which has now been sent to the National Planning and Building Council for final approval.
The plan, which has been staunchly supported by the Tourism Ministry, calls for building a 400-room hotel on a 400-dunam (100-acre) tract of land in the Sasgon Valley, north of Mount Timna, some 30 kilometers north of Eilat in the Arava desert. The Igra Group, which will build the hotel, insists it will be no more than three stories high and will integrate into the landscape.
But environmental activists say the area’s unique landscape should be preserved in its natural state. Moreover, they argue, the infrastructure necessary to support the hotel will cause substantial environmental damage.
Last year, then-Environmental Protection Minister Avi Gabai tried to get the plan canceled in exchange for compensation to the Igra Group by Keren Kayemeth LeIsrael-Jewish National Fund, but to no avail.
Following a public and legal battle, environmentalists began looking into alternative locations for the hotel in the Timna area. But the district planning committee rejected these alternatives because they were all in areas not zoned for tourism.
As required by law, the Igra Group commissioned an environmental impact study of the project. Its results were presented to the planning committee last week, at the same meeting at which the project was voted on.
Committee Chairman David Leffler urged the project’s approval, saying that while environmental and landscape considerations were important, they were outweighed by tourism and economic considerations. The final vote in favor was 8-3, with one of the votes against coming from the Environmental Protection Ministry’s representative.
The Timna Valley, of which Sasgon Valley is part, is a unique area surrounded by sandstone hills that is considered a natural wonder of global importance. The Environmental Protection Ministry argued that developing the site of the planned hotel would cause substantial and irreversible damage, whereas other nearby sites could be developed for tourism with less environmental damage.
Bilha Givon, director of the Sustainable Development for the Negev organization and the environmentalists’ representative on the committee, also opposed the plan.
“In every properly run country, the Tourism Ministry works to preserve the state’s natural assets,” she said after the meeting. “But here, the ministry is working to destroy them. It would be better to rehabilitate projects approved in the Eilat area in the past that didn’t succeed than to build in a natural area.”
But Tourism Ministry Director General Amir Halevy said the hotel was an essential part of the ministry’s vision for developing tourism in the Arava region. Other elements of this vision, he said, include the Ramon airport, “which links the Dead Sea with the Gulf of Eilat,” and developing a bicycle path along the section of the Israel Trail running from Mitzpeh Ramon to Eilat.
“I believe that just as the Europeans have ski resorts in the winter, Israel has the potential to leverage the desert as a destination for extreme sports all year round,” Halevy said, adding that in the West, it’s quite common to find hotels “in the heart of unique nature reserves.”
Halevy noted that when a hotel was first proposed on the lip of the Ramon crater, “there was also vehement opposition to it at first, but today it’s a key employment engine for the region and integrates into the landscape in both color and form. We believe the hotel to be built in Sasgon will be a tourist attraction and even create new interest in Timna Park and develop the entire region, including creating hundreds of new jobs.”
He stressed that the ministry attributes great importance to protecting natural sites precisely because they are tourist attractions. But the new hotel, he argued, will actually help protect Sasgon Valley by increasing public awareness of it.