Floating guest rooms accessed from curved wooden walkways, suspended gardens creating an unexpected oasis, underwater bedrooms with transparent windows, and fish swimming by while you are tucked into your bed are just some of the fantasy-like features of a highly unusual – and equally controversial – plan for a new underwater Israeli hotel designed by renowned Jewish-American architect Daniel Libeskind.
The grandiose plans for this new underwater hotel, in the southern resort city of Eilat, are already enough to give ecologists that sinking feeling: the hotel would descend 15 meters (50 feet) into the Red Sea, giving guests a view of the coral reef from their rooms, but at the same time blocking it from everyone else. The beach where it will be built is currently open to the public but, needless to say, will be closed if and when the expensive new hotel is built.
The hotel would be situated in the city center and be based around a small underwater restaurant that once operated – and failed – there. A simulation shows that the planned hotel is far larger than the original restaurant.
In a presentation to a small committee in the municipality, Libeskind – who previously worked on One World Trade Center in New York and the Jewish Museum in Berlin – presented an artist’s impression of the hotel, which looks like it is floating on water and is connected to the land by a bridge. The hotel rooms look like capsules and, like the central building, are covered with lattices that are supposed to resemble corals.
The developers are brothers Tzahi and Chen Neumann from the Alon Group, and the reported cost of construction is 200 million shekels ($57 million). The project, which is in fact supported by the Tourism Ministry and Eilat City Hall, will have between 82 and 106 rooms over an area of up to 25,000 square meters (270,000 square feet).
A veteran Eilat resident mused aloud whether Libeskind’s work on the much-criticized Berlin museum and his ultimately overlooked design for One World Trade Center had prepared him for dealing with disasters on a historical scale. The implication regarding the fate of Eilat’s coral reef was clear.
Prof. Amatzia Genin, head of the Interuniversity Institute for Marine Science in Eilat, has seen it all before, noting that you never know when developers will pop up with their next bizarre idea for the city. “In socioeconomic terms, it’s daylight robbery. It’s currently a beach that’s open to the public and they’ll turn it into a closed place. Ecologically speaking, it’s the destruction of the reef. Plain and simple.
“It’s worth noting that there’s an unusual reef there with a wealth of corals and rare fish,” he adds. “The currents are slow and any pollution in the water, such as metals, will stay there. If a hotel is built, the reef will be destroyed immediately. No question. I assume that afterward the developers will plant corals in front of the windows, like they did in the underwater observatory [at Eilat]. The guests will turn on the lights in their room and the entire surroundings will be disturbed. They’re creating a destructive ecological influence in a wonderful and important part of the Red Sea. And I haven’t even mentioned the heavy equipment.”
Genin then quoted his mentor, Prof. Lev Fishelson: “What shouldn’t be in the sea mustn’t be in the sea.”
Dr. Jacob Dafni, a marine biologist and longtime Eilat resident, has for years been trying to promote the idea of an ecological-educational beach precisely where the hotel is planned. He derides the concept of an underwater hotel: “It’s a wonderful place in which to bury 200 million shekels. Good luck.”
Dafni doesn’t believe the hotel will ever leave the drawing board, though. He thinks the developers will invest a lot of money before having to pull the plug on their venture. “In the Maldives, from where they got this bizarre idea, these hotels are situated in enclosed and totally quiet bays, at a depth of 5 meters. Here in Eilat, the depth under the abandoned restaurant is 15 meters. Several times a year there are strong southerly storms with high waves here. Light construction can’t be used, and heavy construction will cause terrible damage. So I repeat: It’s a deep enough place to bury 200 million shekels, maybe more.”
Perhaps because of the heat, Eilat manages to repeatedly dream up the most surreal tourism projects imaginable. Some fail during the planning stage. Others fail during the construction stage, or shortly thereafter. If you have a sense of humor, you can enjoy the entertainment provided every few months by Eilat and its comedy partner, the Tourism Ministry.
There’s no shortage of examples, including a casino that was never built and that underwater restaurant that sank without trace. The IMAX cinema is closed, while the Kings City biblical theme park that operated for two decades closed in 2015 and was sold off to a hotel developer. The CEO of Eilat’s tourism corporation spoke enthusiastically last year about future attractions: three water parks, one of the largest golf courses in the Middle East, a conference center and a Euro Disney-style theme park with dinosaurs. None is yet in operation.
Eilat’s most popular tourist attraction – and one of Israel’s best loved and most profitable ones – is its underwater observatory. This is the Original Sin.
It operates in a nature reserve and received its building permit over 40 years ago. The regulator, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority, supervises a private body that shares in the profits every year. INPA employees have admitted the relationship between it and the observatory is quite strange. It wouldn’t happen today, they say, because nobody would sign off on the generous permits that were given to the private owners.
But it turns out they’re being naive. The planned underwater hotel would be just a few miles from the nature reserve, but the reserve’s delicate ecological system would suffer from it. And at least the observatory is open, for a fee, to the general public – the luxury hotel is designed for a tiny number of wealthy customers.
The Tourism Ministry claims the hotel will actually preserve the reef. “This is planning for a modern hotel that will rehabilitate the abandoned restaurant structure,” it said in a statement. “The developers plan to turn the building into an underwater hotel based on the underwater environment and to rehabilitate the environment – which is the hotel’s main attraction. The Eilat Municipality, the Tourism Ministry and the Protection of the Coastal Environment Committee felt the hotel has potential for preservation and attracting tourists, and support its construction. This accords with the European directive for coastline use.”
The Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel was more skeptical. “The overall environmental and ecological significance of operating such a hotel, and the construction of the proposed ‘artificial coral preserve,’ are extensive and liable to be very damaging to nature and reefs in the Gulf of Eilat,” it warned. “The project proposes private construction in the sea, in opposition to the National Master Plan.” The SPNI added that such a project should not be built for an exclusive and wealthy clientele at the expense of damaging rare natural resources that belong to everyone.
The INPA also expressed concern. “In light of the fact that this is an unprecedented initiative, the authority is carefully examining the implications,” it said. “The authority is also attentive to the development requests of the Eilat Municipality and the Tourism Ministry, and has asked that the plans be postponed until all implications are examined.”
The architect of Eilat's misfortune?
The grandiose image of the hotel designed by Libeskind won’t surprise anyone familiar with the history of top architects in general, and Libeskind in particular. He is responsible for a large number of controversial projects, like the Pyramid Tower in Jerusalem that was scrapped following complaints by architects and local residents.
He and his colleagues have become synonymous with insensitive architecture that serves publicity-hungry developers and politicians who want to build grandiose buildings such as concert halls and museums instead of investing in residential buildings.
Western countries have been rejecting such superstar architects (another one is Frank Gehry) in recent years, forcing them to head for the Gulf states and East Asia, where they don’t have to answer such tough questions. Libeskind also likes to say that iconic buildings make a place unique.
Eilat City Architect Yisrael Hayun says the plan is still in the initial stages and has yet to be approved. “Everyone supports a new idea that will bring tourists to the city,” he says, but notes that the developers “understand there is great sensitivity regarding the landscape.”
Why does Eilat need more attractions?
Hayun: “Eilat has been stuck with the same attractions for years. We’re thinking about urban innovation. We’re also promoting urban renewal projects and building a neighborhood in place of the [city center] airport that is being vacated. We’re very busy strengthening the local area, but don’t forget that 80 percent of the city’s economy is based on tourism.”
Such projects are widely criticized in the West and have become characteristic of Abu Dhabi and China. Is this really what Eilat needs?
“For me, the project is still just a drawing. The developer wants to be avant-garde, and the mayor says that generally speaking we welcome the project, but there’s still a long way to go.”