Mortifying: Israel Announces New Hotel Construction at Dying Dead Sea

The four new hotels will line the pockets of billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva. But how much will the government spend to save the sea itself?

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
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Computer simulation of the Dead Sea hotel project.
Computer simulation of the Dead Sea hotel project.Credit: John Horner/Courtesy of Safdie Architects
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad

According to the festive announcement by the Tourism Ministry and the Israel Lands Authority: “Huge momentum for the Dead Sea: Four hotels are to be built, containing over 1,000 rooms, and alongside them a new commercial center, and a 40,000 square meter convention center.” I read it and choked.

The winners of the bids are the natural candidates – Africa Israel, Fattal Hotels and Barclays Israel. Another prominent winner is the Elad Group (owned by Israeli billionaire Yitzhak Tshuva). For the first time in Israel the company will build a hotel with 300 rooms, and a large spa complex. In simulations included in the Tourism Ministry ad, the complex looks like a dreamy hotel in the Maldives – a light-blue structure that seems to float or hover above the water. In order to build it Elad will pay the government 53 million shekels ($15,000) and has promised to complete the project in six years.

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And we haven’t yet mentioned the tender for building a new mall in Ein Bokek, in addition to the one that was dedicated only a few months ago and looks like an alien spaceship that landed from another planet, where everything is made of black glass.

The festive announcement omitted any mention of the words sinkholes, ecological disaster or a drop in the water level. There is also no mention of the essential words – Dead Sea Works (controlled by the Ofer family), a rise in the level of the factories’ evaporation ponds, the harvesting of salt (which the factories promised to do to stabilize the level of the water), and the danger of flooding that threatens the existing hotel area.

A brief explanation: The present hotel area in Ein Bokek, along with the new complex planned for construction between the present area and Hamei Zohar, are not really situated on the Dead Sea coast. They are located on the coast of the artificial evaporation pond 5, which serves the factories at the southern end. There is no natural system here. The real ecological disaster is taking place a few kilometers to the north, in the natural and dying parts of the sea – in the area between Masada, Ein Gedi and Mitzpe Shalem.

Anyone who received the announcement about the development of the Dead Sea understood that we are living in parallel worlds. In one they haven’t heard of the other. In a reality that is familiar to anyone who drives along Highway 90, the Dead Sea and its surroundings are an ecological disaster area. The sea level drops each year by over a meter. The coastline is receding fast. Huge sinkholes are opening up along the coast and paralyzing tourism initiatives that were built there in previous years. Residents of the region and tourists are facing a real danger.

The natural treasure that we received – a unique desert, a one-of-a-kind sea, marvelous landscapes, the lowest place on Earth, nature and archaeology sites that are unparalleled anywhere – are in genuine danger of extinction.

The decision that is reflected in the publication of the results of the Tourism Ministry tenders is like sewing a festive outfit for a deathly ill person who is expiring in bed. The assumption is that if they dress him up nicely, maybe add a little makeup, it will be possible to forget that he’s dying. The sad truth is that it won’t improve the condition of the dying sea.

Perhaps if we read statements such as those made by Tourism Minister Yariv Levin, we’ll forget the reality: “We are continuing with the tourism revolution in the Dead Sea and with leveraging it as an attractive and modern tourism destination. In light of the significant increase in the number of tourists arriving in Israel, I welcome the process of building over 1,000 new rooms at the Dead Sea. This is a big step forward on the way to a dramatic change in the region.” A dramatic change really is coming, honorable minister, but it’s a very regrettable one, and it’s not at all certain that we should welcome it.

A calculation of the sums of the bids reveals that the winners will pay the government over 114 million shekels. How much of this sum will be devoted to saving the sea? Isn’t it a better idea to deal first with the ecological problem? To try to stop the reduction in the sea level and then, only then, to start building a hotel that will hover over the water and bring in a little more money to the Tshuva family?

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