Five years ago, the luxury Beresheet Hotel in Mitzpe Ramon opened with great fanfare. It’s an extraordinary hotel, with rooms looking straight out onto the intoxicating view of the vast Ramon Crater, one of the world’s most impressive sights. It was a significant milestone for tourism in southern Israel, and many hoped the hotel would breathe new life into Mitzpe Ramon, spur the creation of new businesses and jobs, and bring an influx of foreign cash.
But despite the success of the unique hotel, which primarily draws wealthy Israelis and foreigners who can afford the high price of a room, about the only movement that exists between it and the town in which it sits is of ibexes that roam near the buildings chewing leaves of the numerous ornamental shrubs. Most Beresheet guests prefer to sit by the big outdoor pool or the small private pool in front of their room and gaze at the dramatic landscape, and never leave the hotel.
“The hotel broke the glass ceiling of desert tourism,” says Roni Marom, local council head for the past three years. “Before it opened, we thought of desert tourism as sleeping in a tent, and riding a camel or in a jeep. Now with Beresheet, desert tourism can be the most exclusive thing in the world. It’s a great thing for a place like Mitzpe Ramon. They advertised and marketed the place all over the world, and the wealthiest people come to stay here. This wouldn’t have happened without Beresheet. They also strengthened the local economy – There are a number of small businesses, like bakeries, bike rentals and jeep tours, that earn their way because of them. But we now know that the hotel is not really going to boost employment here. It’s important for us to develop tourism here in other directions too.”
Shahar Shilo, tourism coordinator for the Har Hanegev and Mitzpe Ramon local councils, says the Beresheet Hotel doesn’t really impact the city. “It’s a brand unto itself. Disconnected from the place. Whoever goes there, tends to stay there and not come out. The prices are very high (1,800-2,500 shekels, or $470-650, per night) and therefore the guests want to make the most of their time in the hotel.”
Shilo adds that surveys that have been done clearly show that Mitzpe Ramon’s image has not been burnished by the fact that the hotel is located there. While the hotel’s image is rated as excellent, the town’s image is rated as not very good.
Beresheet CEO David Amar confirms that most guests don’t venture much out of the hotel. He attributes this to people wanting to get the most out of their time there, and the wide range of activities available on the premises. There aren’t many culinary options outside the hotel, so the restaurants at Beresheet benefit. He says the hotel is at 90-percent capacity on average, a figure unmatched anywhere in Israel.
“Mitzpe Ramon isn’t an easy place for a hotel on the level of Beresheet,” says Amar. “It’s a small town, with a lot of older people, and it took a long time to find the right fit between the town and the hotel. We have a strong desire to work with local businesses, but we don’t always succeed. The laundry that we worked with went under so now we send the laundry to Eilat. It’s still hard for us to find a carpenter or welder that can meet the hotel’s standards. It sometimes seems like we speak a different language from the people who live in Mitzpe. We’d like to see the town double in size. The situation today is that the guests come to the hotel, not to the city. And that’s a shame. I want them to come to experience the whole area, and that way we could get them to lengthen their stay from one night to two or three. The hotel offers the ultimate experience, but more is needed.”
A ski resort in the middle of the desert
Beresheet’s success can be partly chalked up to European tourists’ interest in desert tourism, and growing fear of travel to destinations like Egypt and Morocco. “The Europeans go on ski trips and they’d gladly go on hiking trips and bike trips in the desert, says Tourism Ministry director-general Amir Halevy. “That’s the basis upon which Mitzpe Ramon needs to develop – like a ski resort in the middle of the desert. The average ski resort in Europe sells five million euros’ worth of beer per month. That’s the kind of income that awaits Mitzpe Ramon.”
Yoash Limon, tour guide and jeep tour operator, and owner of the Green Backpackers hostel in Mitzpe Ramon, also serves as head of the local tourism committee, whose job is to advise the local council. He says the focus must be on what the place is good at, and that’s the desert.
“We’re sitting on the edge of an amazing natural wonder and developing projects and infrastructure that fail to capitalize on this is a waste. Right now, unfortunately, there’s no clear guideline. A decision has to be made about the touristic nature of this place,” Limon says.
Tourist demand for Mitzpe Ramon is increasing, especially from abroad, but Mitzpe Ramon as a community is not well-prepared to take on this demand, and not for lack of rooms, says Limon.
But he says the ideal is “community tourism” that offers a range of lodging prices. He also thinks that tourism is not a top priority for council head Marom.
Marom, meanwhile, says at least 700 hotel rooms need to be added in Mitzpe Ramon – to double the present number.
“Eilat is the opposite of my agenda,” he says. “We don’t have enough tourist attractions in the areas that are best suited for us – agri-tourism, stargazing, extreme sport like off-road biking, unique culinary offerings, art and so on. I’d love to see private entrepreneurs open new hotels and resort villages, not necessarily the big chains.”
Marom insists that tourism is Mitzpe Ramon’s main commercial industry and that he treats it as such.
In the past six months or so, five local tourists businesses in the Darkhei Habsamim section of Mitzpe Ramon have closed their doors. Nir Ben-Gal and Liat Dror’s “Adama” project is the best known of these. But businesses such as the Chakra bar, the Bateva camping store, the local Oranit laundromat run by Philip Friedman, and the Hadasaar Natural Living restaurant, run by Saar Badash and his wife Hadas, all disappeared within a short time.
“We operated in Mitzpe Ramon for 17 years,” says Nir Ben-Gal. “What was so nice was that this was a time when artistic and spiritual tourism developed here, with workshops, and real depth and content. It wasn’t the kind of tourism that’s all about lounging by the pool, like in Eilat or the Dead Sea. But sadly this quality is disappearing.”
The Darkhei Habsamim quarter was started 18 years ago in abandoned industrial buildings, for which the landlords charged a very low price – about 10 shekels per square meter. “Now they want 40,000 shekels per square meter and obviously we can’t afford that. I’m sorry to say that the current local council failed to identify the real sources of strength that were here – the small businesses that gave the town new life. I basically felt like I was being kicked out.
“Up until the very last day, I was pleading with them – ‘Do something because we’ll leave,’ but the council didn’t believe we’d really leave. Five years ago, they through that Mitzpe’s problems were over when Beresheet opened. That’s nave. Mitzpe’s residents aren’t the ones enjoying the hotel and its success. At ‘Adama’ we employed 24 people, we hosted hundreds of people a month for dance workshops, and we got no appreciation or support. Today I can say that they plundered the young entrepreneurs who tried to make a go of something in Mitzpe and succeeded. I did all I could to be able to stay there, but I was left with no choice except to move to Sderot. All that I asked for from Mitzpe, I was given in Sderot.”