Ein Bokek, the new promenade.
(photo credit: SETH J. FRANTZMAN)
“This is a revolution in the country to see what’s happening here,” said Dov Litvinoff, head of the Tamar Regional Council, which presides over 1.6 million dunams (6.4m. acres) along the Dead Sea. He was standing on the new promenade being built at Ein Bokek.
In the far background, just beyond the smooth stone benches, and concrete casements for drainage, some swimmers dabbled in the waters.
Big things are happening here. “What you see before you is a flagship project. There will be culinary and spa development, a health center and a connections to the solarium,” he said. A new Dead Sea Mall is being constructed that will provide an addition 15,000 square meters of commercial space.
With two floors, its brochure shows brand name stores such as Zara and developers hope it will be open by August 2017, bringing much needed modernization and new shopping venues. To bring attention to the mall, promoters flew in visitors in four helicopters from the coast of Israel.
After the copters droned off into the distance and their disembarked passengers began to enjoy the champagne, quiet returned to the area. It was a pleasant 26 degrees, the wind was blowing and the Dead Sea was placid.
The Dead Sea receives around 2 million tourists a year, meaning that two thirds of the tourists who visit Israel make their way to the salty, barren, landscape here to see the lowest place on Earth.
Some come to see the Baptism site near Jericho, the Qumram caves where the Dead Sea scrolls were discovered, Masada, to hike at Ein Gedi, and to relax in the curative waters. But Ein Bokek, established in 1960s and eventually encapsulating more than a dozen major hotels, has struggled in recent decades to seem new and relevant.
The old shopping center looks like something from the 1970s. Some of the hotels reminds one of those places in Las Vegas or Palm Springs that might have been swank back in the day.
Since 2012 the Ministry of Tourism has been trying to rehabilitate the region with investments.
To link Ein Bokek with sites to the south, Litvinoff shows off a new promenade that will extend for some 15 kilometers along the coastline toward Neve Tzohar. He contrasts the area with Tel Aviv as “a break without a city,” rather than a non-stop city.
The new development in Ein Bokek and throughout the council will bring up to 20,000 jobs, including around 500 at the new shopping center. For Hagai Adoram, a representative of Barclays which is developing the mall, says he thinks it’s one of the most special places in the country.
The area has a colorful history and unique environment.
Biblical Abraham and his nephew Lot were here, and a pillar of salt reputed to be the wife of Lot is down the road. Today there is hiking in the nearby canyon to the spring for which Ein Bokek is named. People come for jeep tours, and there are numerous archeological sites. Most visitors come to take in the waters and relax.
But the issues facing this region are more than just tourism. Some 30 swimmers braved the waters of the salty sea on November 15 to bring attention to the evaporating waters. The sea has shrunk on average around three feet per year during the last decade, with hundreds of sinkholes opening up around it. The region threatens to become an ecological disaster, even as tourism develops.
A joint project with Jordan and the Palestinians is supposed to reverse this decline. The council has opened a new Dead Sea Research Institute just below the natural earthen walls of Masada. The institute, whose finishing touches are still being put in place, has Jordanian and Israeli flags flying outside, a testament to the ideal of coexistence that sharing the sea with Jordan brings.
Mira Marcus-Kalish, the director of International Research Collaboration at Tel Aviv University, says the institute will harness numerous disciplines to study in this unique environment.
Where once Roman soldiers patrolled as their men laid siege to the zealots atop Masada, dozens of researchers in some 30 subjects will now have access to field work in geology, archeology, seismology and other disciplines. They’ll pour over minerals and salt water which is 10 times more saline than the ocean.
Marcus-Kalish reminds us that Nobel Prize winner Ada Yonath studied bacteria from the Dead Sea.
Litvinoff says the country needs to recognize the practicalities involved as well. Unique music festivals (rumors say Coldplay is coming) take place here, and millions of tourists will still come, but the state must invest in infrastructure and saving the Dead Sea.
He foresees widening the highways that lead to the area and increasing the ability of people to fly in. He’ll be meeting with the Transportation Ministry soon. In essence there is an “if you build it they will come,” mentality here. Ein Bokek and its surroundings, which were often treated like the little cousin of touristy Eilat, hopes to reinvent itself.