Tourism Booming In Israel’s ‘Last Frontier’
Tue, 05/14/2013
Special To The Jewish Week
Bicycling uphill in the Negev.
Bicycling uphill in the Negev.

On a fateful car trip to Eilat while he was prime minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion suddenly asked his driver to turn off the highway.

“I wanted to feel the vastness of the desert,” he later explained in his memoir, “to renew myself by experiencing the awesome effect, which for me never diminishes, of these open spaces…” Without the Negev, Ben-Gurion said, Israel would be hardly be Jewish or a state; it was in the Negev, he believed, that the “creativity and pioneer vigor of Israel will be tested.”

More than half a century later, increasing numbers of tourists are following in Ben-Gurion’s footsteps and discovering the rugged splendor of the Negev, which contains 55 percent of Israel’s land area, but less than 10 percent of its population. From bicycling to bird watching, and from hot-air ballooning to horse (and camel)-back riding, the Negev is exploding with tourist attractions, especially since last year, when Lonely Planet named the region second only to Corsica as the best place to travel in the world.

Yael Dadoun is a third-year education student at Hebrew Union College in New York. Each summer for the last few years she had lead a group of about 150 Reform Jewish high schoolers on a five-week trip to Israel. Their first stop is the Negev, where they spend three days in sleeping bags on the ground. Staying in the desert, Dadoun explained, provides “a powerful bonding experience that enables them both to take care of each other and to take care of themselves.” By the end, she said, “They can handle anything. They’re like warriors.”

While few visitors will want to sleep on the ground, the region offers a wide range of accommodations to fit every budget. These include the new Bereshit Hotel, (isrotelexclusivecollection.com/beresheet), a five-star Isrotel property overlooking the Ramon Crater (Makhtesh Ramon), a huge national park with stunning vistas that has been compared to the Grand Canyon. And then is a plethora of other, less expensive places to stay, including farms, orchards, and wineries that remind many tourists of the landscape of Tuscany.

Eyal Izrael, a tall, dark-haired, clean-shaven fellow with a serious look, stands on a hill overlooking his property, Carmey Avdat (carmeyavdat.com). His is one of two dozen small farms that have sprung up along the Spice Route established 1,500 years ago by nomadic Nabateans to transport spices and perfumes from Yemen to Ancient Rome.

Izrael tells a visiting group about his family’s winery, built on the remains of an Nabatean vineyard (and using some of the same original ancient irrigation terraces). The samples of merlot and cabernet sauvignon that he distributes are kept fresh by the substitution argon gas for oxygen whenever a bottle is decanted. His guests sleep in huts near the orchard’s fig, pomegranate, apricot and almond trees. Guests do not mind the lack of creature comforts, Izrael said, mentioning that the floors of the cabins are made up of loose stones. “They find the desert to a place of peace and solitude,” he said.

Much of the expansion of tourism in the Negev is driven by changes in travel patterns in the country. According to Raz Arbel, partnership and tourism director for the Ramat HaNegev (Negev Highlands) Regional Council, a 2005 study of the two million tourists who drive south to Eilat each year found that 40 percent (up from just 10 percent in 1999) were using Highway 40, which crosses the Ramon Crater, rather than Highway 90, which runs along the Dead Sea and down through the Arava Valley.

This increased traffic in the Ramat HaNegev has helped to spur the development of Ben Gurion Village, where Arbel lives along with 350 other families, as well as landmarks like Sde Boker, the kibbutz where Ben-Gurion settled and is buried, and the brand new visitor’s center in the town of Mitzpe Ramon that features an exhibit about Ilan Ramon, the Israeli astronaut who died in the explosion of the Columbia space shuttle in 2003. Of the one million annual tourists to the region, Arbel said, about 20 percent come from abroad, including 30,000 on Birthright Israel trips (which invariably include an overnight stay in a Bedouin tent). “They can see how Ben-Gurion’s dream has become a reality,” he said, “in a place where people feel safe and secure, far from the rocket range of Gaza.”

Because there are still few roads in the Negev itself, many visitors tour the hilly, arid region on mountain bikes. Asaf Amichai owns Geofun, (geofun.co.il), a 7-year-old bike rental and touring company in Midreshet Ben Gurion. He said that many of his customers are from Europe, where the Negev is being promoted as “Europe’s new desert.” Europeans “come here in the winter rather than going on a ski vacation,” he told The Jewish Week. Because the area’s climate is dry, with low humidity and infrequent rainfall, cycling is possible virtually all year round. “Cycling is a combination of a sport and a mode of travel, he said, and cyclists “discover a lot of beautiful places that are inaccessible otherwise; you also see a lot of things that you would miss if you were either running or driving.”

Americans are also discovering the Negev in droves. Irit Waldbaum, a volunteer for the Allied Jewish Federation in Colorado, said that 14 years ago the federation became a “twin” of the Ramat HaNegev. Since then the Colorado Jewish community has sponsored a plethora of joint programs, including sending high schoolers from the local day school to the Negev to learn Hebrew, organizing missions to the Negev from local synagogues, and bringing young adults from the Negev to work in Colorado Jewish summer camps. Israeli emergency workers have even come from the Negev to train in the Rockies with the state’s Search and Rescue teams. And the Iranian-Jewish Merage Foundation, based in Greenwood Village (a suburb of Denver), has invested in more than three dozen economic development projects in the Negev.

“We fell in love with the Negev,” Waldbaum said. “We saw it as the last frontier of Israel.” In addition to having the pioneering vision of Ben Gurion, she noted, the people are “young, educated, active, outdoorsy and athletic.” The climate is similar to that of Colorado’s, and at night, she said, “the stars are beyond anything you’ve ever seen.”

As Izrael, the farmer and wine expert sees it, exploring the Negev is like looking into a mirror, learning about one’s own interests, inclinations, and capacities. “When visitors come face to face with the Negev,” he said, “they discover a lot about the desert, but they discover even more about themselves.” ◆

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