Controversial Hotel Project in Southern Israeli Desert Allowed to Proceed - With Some Major Changes

Significant changes will have to be made in the Tourism Ministry-supported hotel's plans, which environmentalists say will ruin one of Israel's premier nature sites

Almog Ben Zikri
Zafrir Rinat
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The Sasgon Valley.
The Sasgon Valley.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Almog Ben Zikri
Zafrir Rinat

A controversial hotel project in the southern Arava Desert can go ahead, with some changes, Israel’s national zoning appeals board has ruled. Opponents say the changes could lead the developer to scrap the project due to reduced profitability.

The appeals subcommittee of the National Planning and Building Council refused to disallow the project, which environmentalists say will ruin one of Israel’s most important remaining nature sites. But in the decision it issued Sunday, the panel also required the developer to make major changes.

The Southern District Planning and Building Committee a year ago approved a plan to build a 300-room hotel on an area of 91 dunam (24 acres).

Three committee members, including one from the Environmental Protection Ministry and one representing environmental organizations, appealed the approval.

The ministry and “green” groups have consistently opposed the plan since it was first submitted. They proposed several alternatives, including relocating the hotel at the southern entrance of Timna National Park, which the district planning committee rejected because they were all in areas not zoned for tourism.

Environmental activists say the area’s unique landscape should be preserved in its natural state. Moreover, the infrastructure necessary to support the hotel will cause substantial environmental damage.

The Tourism Ministry is a strong supporter of the hotel project, and even promised the developers a 72-million-shekel ($20.6 million) grant, but in October informed the High Court of Justice that it wa reconsidering its decision after environmentalists filed a petition against the grant in the High Court. The Tourism Ministry told the court it believes that the hotel in the Sasgon Valley is very important for the Eilat region’s development and it remains one of its flagship projects.

The appeals subcommittee said it turned down the appeal because the district committee was following the master plan for the area. But the subcommittee decided to make a number of changes to the plans, including reducing the built area and permitting construction only on the southern portion of the land. The northern section has much higher environmental value so the subcommittee refused to allow construction there and should be left in its natural state, ruled the committee.

The original plan exceeded the standards for hotels “on a scale unknown in Israel,” stated the appeals committee. The Igra Group will not have to file a new detailed plan based on these changes, as well as completing the environmental impact reports, and then these plans must be presented for public comment and objections. The appeals committee gave the developer nine months to comply with the new requirements.

All these changes could make the entire project not worthwhile financially and could lead to major delays in completing the project. The subcommittee said that it was aware that its decision could “determine the fate of the detailed plan” and put an end to project.

Finally, the appeals committee said the district committee could renew its discussion of whether other sites in the region were appropriate for the hotel project, including at the entrance to the Timna Park.

The Igra Group said it had yet to study the entire decision, but in general was pleased that the appeal had been rejected and would take the committee’s comments under advisement, include them in the plans, meet the new schedule and advance the project.

A number of environmental organizations called the decision a victory and said they hoped this plan — or any of the alternatives — will not be carried out. Residents of the area also said they hoped the Sasgon Valley would now be declared a nature reserve.

However, the question of whether the developer has a right to compensation from the government if the original plan for the hotel is not implemented is a separate issue, still to be determined.

Amir Halevi, the director general of the Tourism Ministry, praised the rejection of the appeal and said the ministry is studying the decision and its implications. “It is encouraging the committee understood the importance of creating places to stay as part of the development of tourism in the region, in a way that integrates into nature as has been done in parks all over the world with great success.”

It has been 15 years since a new hotel has been built in Eilat and the supply of hotel rooms in the city and region is inadequate, added the Tourism Ministry.